The St. Croix and St. Thomas/St. John locals of the American Federation of Teachers on Thursday vehemently rejected plans by Gov. Kenneth Mapp’s administration to have employees forego retroactive pay from never-realized negotiated pay raises in years past in exchange for actually getting pay raises now.
"While the government continues to ignore deplorable, unsafe school conditions, it is also showing deep disrespect for Virgin Islands teachers by reneging on an agreement it made with the St. Croix Federation of Teachers and the St. Thomas-St. John Federation of Teachers to provide teachers with retroactive pay increases," the presidents of the teachers unions said in a statement Thursday.
The unions said V.I. teachers have gone without a pay increase since the 2009-10 school year. But they complain the government issued what it called a "stipulated agreement” on April 5, saying the government wants to dispense with retroactive salary increase payments for Sept. 1, 2011, through Aug. 31, 2015, which had been negotiated and promised to teachers in a 2010-11 collective bargaining agreement.
“It’s illegal and insulting for the government to refuse to pay teachers what has been negotiated fairly,” St. Croix Federation of Teachers President Rosa Soto-Thomas said in the statement. “The government’s disrespect for public education and its teachers and students seems to know no bounds. Our schools continue to have deplorable conditions, affecting safety, health, teaching and learning.”
Soto-Thomas said the schools have many serious problems, including rodent infestation, mold, leaky roofs, falling concrete and other unacceptable conditions.
Similarly St. Thomas/St. John Federation of Teachers President Avery Thomas said the government’s request to waive back pay "is grossly insulting to the educators and children of this territory. We will never sign such a document. The 2010-11 collective bargaining agreement was negotiated in good faith and was fully vetted by the government and the AFT. Our members must be paid what they are owed.”
As of 6 p.m. Thursday, Government House had not yet responded to a request for comment and clarification of its policy regarding retroactive pay.
However, at her March 22 confirmation hearing, Chief Labor Negotiator Natalie Nelson-Tang How told senators the government was grateful to be finally paying raises, but simply did not have the money to pay hundreds of millions of dollars in retroactive pay.
"There has to be a compromise, I think that at this point,” Nelson-Tang How said, responding to a question from Sen. Jean Forde. “Just overall, looking at some of these contracts where is the money to pay for those contracts? Even the retro some of that is going to have to go."
"There is no way that we can move forward and dig ourselves out of this deep hole that we are currently in by adding more to it,” she continued. “So I don’t have any intention to do that and the unions I have met with, which is quite a few, are very well aware of that. … I can tell you though that the unions, while they do want their salary increases, because it has been a long time coming, they are fully aware of that limitation.”
Nelson-Tang How said, in part, “There has to be money to pay for those contracts. This is the biggest expense of the government: Payroll and salaries."
Forde asked, "You said the retroactive will have to go?"
"It will have to go," Nelson-Tang How said.
Later in the hearing, Sen. Justin Harrigan followed up, asking her, "How and when did you arrive at this conclusion?"
She said, "Money. You have to have the money to pay. And if you don’t have the money you can’t pay."
Harrigan asked, "So the unions you have met with so far, they were told that, don’t consider retro as part of their negotiations?"
"I told them straight up," Nelson Tang-How said.