High-pitched whistles mixed with the crackling of drums, tambourines and spoons on pans as public employees closed the streets of Puerto Rico’s capital on Friday to demand higher wages and pensions.
The crowd trembled and applauded as demonstrators held signs that read “Fair wages now!”
The call has rang out across Puerto Rico in recent weeks as government employees and supporters took to the streets, with thousands of public school teachers abandoning their classrooms in early February to demand higher pay and higher pensions.
Protests have multiplied, and the unrest has posed one of the biggest challenges to Governor Pedro Pierluisi’s year in office.
“People drove American troops out of Vieques. They drove out a governor. We can do that,” said Abner Dumey, who teaches history in the northern town of Narangito.
Lawmakers are the only public workers who get automatic pay increases. Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory, and most other public officials have not received a pay raise in more than a decade — sometimes twice — because the cost of living has risen, the island has endured a protracted economic crisis and the government’s response to deadly hurricanes, earthquakes and coronavirus. Bankruptcy after the virus pandemic.
Electricity and water bills in Puerto Rico are nearly 60 percent higher than the U.S. average. Despite lower costs such as health care and housing, groceries are 18 percent more expensive than on the mainland, according to the island’s Bureau of Statistics.
Government workers are struggling to cope with rising prices while being paid the same wages they were in 2008, said Marcia Rivera, an economist and sociologist who studies poverty and inequality.
“They’ve had enough,” she said.
Many public officials work an extra job or two to make ends meet.
For example, Carlos Javier Vázquez, a paramedic in the mountain town of Barranquitas, also teaches emergency medicine and runs an ambulance company to help support him wife and four children. It was an exhausting and unsustainable life, he said.
Nursing staff in Puerto Rico earn a base salary of $1,725 a month, and he said he had no choice, noting that “it’s very difficult to survive on that.”
To quell the demonstrations, the governor promised a monthly increase of $1,000 a few days after 70 percent of teachers walked out of their classrooms in protest earlier this month. A few days later, he expanded the offer to include principals, district supervisors and others.
Soon after, he pledged a monthly increase of $500 for firefighters and 30 percent for paramedics.
Pierluisi’s actions have only fueled the ire of other government employees, some demanding a raise for themselves and others angered by the governor’s recent comments that no one is being forced to be a firefighter or a police officer.
One problem is that all of this growth that Peel Lewis has promised is reliant on federal funding coming due in the next few years, something many didn’t believe when the governor promised to find local funding to make the growth permanent.
The promise also worries economists. Puerto Rico’s leaders are trying to restructure $70 billion in public debt after decades of mismanagement, corruption and excessive borrowing, forcing the government to declare the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history in 2017, just as Hurricane Maria hit the country. island a few months ago.
“It’s very irresponsible,” said Antonio Fernos, a Puerto Rican economist and university professor who believes the government cannot make the growth permanent. “This is Public Finance 101 that shouldn’t be done.”
Fernos said one of the key factors driving the government into bankruptcy was the use of temporary funds to cover fixed costs.
“They certainly haven’t learned their lesson,” he said. “Puerto Rico is the poster child for mismanagement of government finances. This is the worst possible time for all working people.”
Poverty researcher Rivera agreed, saying a raise should not be approved without a financial policy in place. She added that governors should not manage affairs by responding to yelling.
“He opened Pandora’s box,” she said. “He couldn’t meet all the needs that he generated on his own.”
Pierluisi’s announcement comes weeks after the federal control board overseeing Puerto Rico’s finances approved a fiscal plan that included smaller pay raises for teachers, firefighters and other employees. It said the government’s finances did not allow for more.
The governor said a new pay package will go into effect next year, bringing higher wages to thousands of public officials, but he also said he would not be able to raise wages for all public officials.
“I obviously can’t please everyone,” he said Wednesday. “That is impossible.”
On the same day, he announced a 30 percent pay rise for dispatchers and medical emergency technicians, including paramedics. On Thursday, he announced a $500 monthly increase for prison officials.
While economists have warned about the lack of funding, union leaders say the promised increase is only a good first step. They say more is needed and complain that the government is cutting pension benefits and raising the retirement age.
Wanda Ramos, a special education teacher in Caguas, said her retirement pension will drop from $2,400 a month to $960 a month. She said she was struggling now after 12 years without a raise.
“I could only buy the necessities. I never had a full refrigerator,” Ramos said, adding that a large portion of her salary went to pay for her daughter’s college education.
Migdalía Santiago, who is also a special education teacher, said she faced similar struggles.
“Pay for the lights; you don’t have to pay for the water,” she said.
The base salary for Puerto Rico public school teachers is $1,750 per month, with a minimum requirement of $3,500. Meanwhile, firefighters earn a base salary of $1,500 a month and are seeking $2,500 and an improved pension plan.
Union leader José Tirado said firefighters could previously retire at 55 after 30 years of service, receiving up to 75 percent of their salary. Right now, the minimum retirement age is 58, and they only get 33 percent of their salary, he said.
“The quality of life is miserable for the salary they earn,” Tirado said.