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NYS Employee Pay Raises Frozen Amid Pandemic

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo speaking March 25, 2020.
Governor Andrew Cuomo

Governor Andrew Cuomo is freezing scheduled pay raises of 80,000 state workers due to the deficit caused by the coronavirus. 

Most employees of New York State were due to receive a 2% pay raise in their next paychecks, under terms of a collective bargaining agreements worked out between their unions and Cuomo’s administration.

But around midnight Wednesday the governor’s budget office informed the unions that the pay raise is on hold for at least 90 days.

Cuomo says with the state facing a $10 to $15 billion deficit, and a steep drop in revenue with almost all businesses closed, he has few choices right now.

“Life is options, right,” Cuomo said. “You have a $10 to $15 billion shortfall. What are you going to do about it? I can’t just sit here and say I’m officially operating the state when I know we don’t have money to pay the bills that we’re incurring right now. The options are you could do layoffs of state workers option A. Option B, you could buy some time with freezing the raises to state workers. I choose option B. Rather than laying off people which would only add to the unemployment claims, the stress, the hardship.”

Unions condemned the move. The President of CSEA, the largest state employee union, Mary Sullivan says many workers are providing essential services like caring for the sick and helping people get unemployment benefits.

“It’s inexcusable to require our workers to literally face death to ensure the state keeps running and then turn around and deny those very workers their much-deserved raise in this time of crisis,” Sullivan said in a statement.

The President of the New York State Correctional Officers & Police Benevolent Association (NYSCOPBA) Michael Powers says it’s a “slap in the face” to those on the front lines in the state’s prisons, with hundreds of guards testing positive for the virus.

EJ McMahon, of the conservative leaning fiscal watch dog the Empire Center, says delaying or canceling salary increases for public workers right now makes sense, when New York and other states are facing their most severe fiscal crisis in decades. McMahon said in a Skype interview it should not be seen as a judgement of the worth of the workers.

“It’s not a matter of whether they deserve it or not,” McMahon said. “It’s a matter of whether everybody is broke or not. Virtually every tax payer in the state who still has a job is worried about keeping their job and is probably seeing their pay decreased. We are now in a completely different world from the one in which these contracts were negotiated.”

McMahon questions the way the governor carried out the change, and wonders whether it could withstand a court challenge.  

“I think its uncharted territory, no one has ever attempted it this way,” McMahon said. “His way of doing it, almost by stealth, is not going to help his case for making it stick.”

He says it would be better to get the legislature to agree to a law that freezes the salaries.

The pay freeze does not apply to workers in local governments or in school districts.

The governor’s budget director Robert Mujica says the freeze is temporary.

“The state only has a certain amount of resources. We’re trying to prioritize those resources right now to fund the health care crisis,” said Mujica. “Let’s take a break and see if the federal government is going to step up and provide the state with more resources to deal with the revenue shortfall and then we can deal with those commitments.”

Mujica says if Congress and President Trump agree to another federal bailout package, and the state gets more help, the salary increases could be reinstated.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of public radio stations in New York state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.
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