They’re kidding, right? The Senate couldn’t be so out of touch that it approved a bill giving government workers a grab bag of benefits the government can’t afford and which aren’t available to mere citizens. Could it?
The amendment offered by Sen. Alicia "Chucky" Hansen" will allow any longtime V.I. Government employee to take two years off work with the government paying full health insurance and pension contributions for the jobs that are not being performed. Money going out for work not being done. Hansen’s amendment was tacked on – almost without discussion – as a last-minute amendment to a bill the unanimous Senate approved Thursday.
It stipulated that any employee who has accumulated five or more years of government service can take up to two years, but not less than one year of voluntary leave without pay “for any purpose whatsoever without losing seniority and shall have the right to return to his employment.”
It is an extension of a measure included two years ago in the Stabilization Act, and it considerably sweetens the deal. That law – passed as a temporary, emergency measure – created an incentive for employees to take a leave of absence in order to reduce involuntary layoffs due to budget constraints. The 2011 law required employees taking advantage of this benefit giveaway to “return to work on or before October 1, 2013.”
Hansen’s amendment extends this automatic two-year leave with government-paid benefits until Oct. 1, 2016, and creates an obligation for the government to pay an unknown amount in employer and employee health and pension contributions for employees who are not actually performing any work. It also requires the government to pay not just the employer contribution for health insurance and retirement pensions, but also the employees’ own contributions.
Even if that little-commented on measure made sense two years ago, times have changed and the economic situation is even shakier. For one thing, the original measure was passed before Hovensa announced it was ceasing refining operations in the territory.
On Wednesday Gov. John deJongh Jr. challenged the Senate to stop business as usual and face up to the hard decisions that have to be made in a territory where the budget is millions of dollars out of balance and the economy is still reeling from the body blow of Hovensa’s action, and the islands are facing a potential loss of its fuel supply. The governor pointed out that a further reduction of the work force is almost inevitable, just one of the hard choices the legislators will have to make if they want to stop the fiscal bleeding.
Senators protested that deJongh’s comments were unfair, but judging from their action Thursday, their words don’t mean much. Their vote Thursday spoke volumes about their real priorities. Sadly, it was no real surprise. Our senators just don’t get it.
At Hansen’s behest, the Senate continues to use the General Fund as a gift bag to dole out benefits to placate a group of potential voters and ignore the harsh realities of the territory’s economic misery.
No one even attempted to explain why government workers deserve such an unparalleled benefit. We respect government workers, who do hard jobs and mostly do them well. But the Senate’s action seems inexplicable when other workers are struggling just to get and hold jobs, and many more can’t even find one. If you – a store clerk or a dental hygienist or a legal secretary, for instance, or, let’s just say it, a news editor or reporter – wanted or needed to take two years off of work, would you expect your employer to continue paying your benefits and hold employment open for you until you returned? If you asked, can you imagine your boss’s reaction? Would the boss laugh or throw you out on your ear?
This legislation isn’t just ill considered – it’s casual larceny of the taxpayers and a slap in the face of every person in the territory, anyone who works or tries to work, anyone who counts on the government to remain solvent to keep schools open, roads repaired, streets patrolled, anyone who has been forced to leave the islands by the poisonous economy which the Senate seems unwilling to take seriously.
During Friday’s Senate session a motion to reconsider the vote failed by a vote of 6-7. We are counting now on the governor to veto it, and can only pray that a majority of the senators come to their senses and uphold the expected veto. But frankly, we aren’t too hopeful that will happen. Because our senators apparently just don’t get it.