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Hawaii Gov. David Ige’s plan for public worker pay cuts gets pushback

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                                Governor David Ige.


    Governor David Ige.

Gov. David Ige’s plan to impose 20% pay cuts for teachers and many other public workers quickly encountered resistance Wednesday from both the public worker unions and some leading state lawmakers.

The pay cut proposal is part of the state response to the coronavirus pandemic, and is designed to help offset an anticipated collapse in state tax collections in the months ahead.

The proposal was presented to union leaders at a meeting at the state Capitol on Tuesday, and union staff who attended the meeting recounted that “this was not a suggestion, this is what’s going to happen,” Hawaii State Teachers Association President Corey Rosenlee told reporters on Wednesday.

“This is something that we believe is going to be imposed on us, rather than a conversation,” he said. Union officials need to study the governor’s powers under his emergency proclamations, “and I think we will have to look at what are our legal means.”

The unions still do not have a written proposal from Ige, but said his plan would impose a 20% salary cut on most public employees including teachers as early as May 1, and a 10% cut in pay for first responders such as police officers, firefighters, nurses, and emergency medical technicians, according to a letter Rosenlee distributed to HSTA members.

In a news conference Wednesday afternoon, Ige said no final decision has been made yet on pay cuts or furloughs, but said if pay reductions are imposed on public workers, he and his Cabinet will take similar cuts in pay.

He said the state faces an emergency, and likely will need to cut state spending by $1.5 billion during the next 15 months. “We are looking at all options to keep the budget balanced,” he said. The state general treasury budget for next year totals $8.4 billion.

State lawmakers have already warned that public school teachers and other public employees will almost certainly have to forgo negotiated pay raises that were supposed to be funded by the Legislature this year, but the Ige proposal would impose actual pay cuts for the first time since the “furlough Fridays” of the Great Recession when Linda Lingle was governor.

“This is unacceptable,” Rosenlee wrote in the letter to his members that was sent out Tuesday evening. “While we recognize the coronavirus has already started to cripple Hawaii’s economy, no one can be sure of its long-term impacts. We believe cutting salaries for tens of thousands of state workers is rash and will hurt our state even more.”

House Speaker Scott Saiki and Senate President Ron Kouchi issued a joint statement Wednesday urging Ige to wait before imposing pay cuts.

“Although Governor Ige has the unilateral authority to impose furloughs and salary cuts, we do not agree with such action,” the lawmakers wrote. They suggested it is possible the federal government will provide more support to help stabilize state budgets, as the National Governors Association and others have proposed.

“Although we disagree with Governor Ige’s proposal, the Legislature will work with him to assess and pursue all options,” Saiki and Kouchi wrote.

Rosenlee said the pay reductions would last more than a year, while Hawaii Government Employees Associations Executive Director Randy Perreira said in a statement issued Wednesday morning that Ige’s proposed pay reductions would last for more than two years.

The cuts are designed to help offset what is expected to be a steep dropoff in state tax collections triggered by the coronavirus pandemic, which has virtually shut down the state’s tourism industry. Economists have projected that will cause a 10% to 25% drop in state tax collections.

House Republican Minority Leader Gene Ward also objected to Ige’s pay cut plan, saying in a written statement Wednesday that “pay cuts to teachers and first responders — including healthcare workers — is cruel and unusual punishment. They should be exempt, and definitely no furloughs.”

Pay cuts would be contrary to the spirit of the federal Payroll Protection Act that was designed to keep employees whole, he said. Ward suggested the state could instead borrow “multiple millions” from the special funds that are scattered across state government to balance the budget during the next few months.

HGEA’s Perreira, meanwhile, argued that “all public workers deserve support, not pay cuts.”

“They are keeping vital and essential government services running and many are putting their own health and safety at risk because they haven’t been given adequate personal protection equipment (PPE),” Perreira said in a written statement.

As examples, Perreira cited health care workers at the Hawaii State Hospital who are being told to wear homemade cloth masks; deputy sheriffs who have been given just one mask; and Department of Land and Natural Resources conservation resources enforcement officers who were told to use “expired, damaged, moldy and ill-fitting PPE left over from the APEC Economic Leaders Meeting held in 2011.”

Rosenlee said it is not clear yet whether the cuts will be imposed as furloughs or across-the-board salary decreases. He estimated that a 20% salary reduction would result in the loss of $600 to $1,800 in monthly income for teachers.

Since the news of the pay cut proposal broke, Rosenlee said he has been contacted by teachers who are “panicked, they’re scared, they don’t know how they’re going to afford things such as food and rent, and that’s why we have to look at what is the consequence.”

“Salaries for Hawaii’s public school educators are already low, and cutting an additional 20% will inevitably worsen Hawaii’s teacher shortage crisis, denying our keiki the quality educators they deserve,” he wrote in his letter to union members. HSTA represents about 14,000 public school teachers.

Rosenlee told reporters Wednesday that the union quickly moved to make Ige’s plan public partly to create “a chance to divert what could be a very dangerous situation for everyone. I’m still hopeful. I hope the governor will do the right thing.”

He said the state has other options, noting that the state’s cash surplus at the end of last fiscal year combined with the “rainy day” budget reserve fund total more than $1 billion. The CARES Act approved by Congress and President Trump on March 27 included another $863 million to bolster government finances.

“HSTA and other public sector unions have made it clear to the governor that this will exacerbate our weakening economy, hurt government employees, and potentially prolong this crisis,” Rosenlee wrote. “We stand united and will not accept the governor’s plan without exploring every last alternative to keep these harmful cuts from happening.”

As for HGEA, which is the largest union in the state, Perreira said in his statement that “every person who remains fully employed during this crisis is contributing to the local economy by purchasing takeout meals at local restaurants and mom and pop businesses, buying locally grown produce, groceries and fabric from local stores to make fabric face masks and other are buying other local products. The solution is not more unemployed workers.”

Senate Judiciary Chairman Karl Rhoads, a Democrat, agreed that Ige’s plan might actually make the economic downturn worse. Government workers make up a sizable chunk of the state’s economy, and if public workers have less money to spend, then Hawaii businesses will have fewer customers, he said.

Lydia Haff, a second-year English teacher at Waianae High School, told reporters during an online news conference Wednesday that she was already working a second job before the coronavirus lockdown. “A 20% pay cut would mean further financial strain on me and my family,” she said.

The pay cut would also aggravate the high teacher turnover in schools along the Leeward Coast, including teachers recruited from the mainland. “If this pay cut were to happen, it would make it even harder for them to stay, and this ultimately hurts our students,” she said. The news conference was organized by union staff.

State Department of Education Superintendent Christina Kishimoto said during an online COVID-19 Care Conversation on Wednesday that her department had not yet received any guidance on furloughs or pay cuts from the Ige administration.

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