The measure could come to the House floor by tomorrow, Wednesday, at 1:00 p.m. (horizontal-x3)
The measure could come to the House floor by tomorrow, Wednesday, at 1:00 p.m. (Ramón Tonito Zayas)

The elimination of the Christmas bonus and the reduction of the work week are still a possibility for all public employees if the Government is unable to cut spending as contemplated in the plan approved by the Oversight Board (OB), said yesterday the secretary of Public Affairs of La Fortaleza, Ramón Rosario Cortés.

When the document was approved last March 13, the OB warned that by July 1 –the start of the new fiscal year- a $190 million liquidity deficit was being forecast and that, to cure said fiscal gap, it proposed to reduce the work week of public employees and eliminate the Christmas bonus. The Government rejected that option, but it remained a possibility in the event that projected savings are not met.

“If we meet these metrics, there’ll be no reduction of the work week. But, if we fail, the Board has established it can do it automatically. (That is), if we don’t get the savings, it’ll mean reduction of work week and full elimination of the Christmas bonus,” he said.

As part of that package of measures submitted by the Executive, there is House Bill 938, which seeks savings with a cutback on spending and efficiencies totaling $1,623 million. That figure includes savings of $434 million for mobility, a freeze on hirings, and leveling of benefits; $439 million in Government transformation by means of consolidations, public-private alliances and efficiencies, and $750 million in reduced subsidies.

“Just on vacations alone, there is a savings of $35 million,” assured Rosario Cortés.

The House of Representatives had been anticipated to consider the bill yesterday, but the House leadership decided to allow for additional time to hear leaders from unions representing public employees, after the former marched to the Capitol in defense of the rights of their members.

“If we are able to include the measures in the fiscal plan in a piece of legislation and implement them in government, we should manage; otherwise, the contingencies, about which the Board has already alerted, could materialize,” he said.

The OB’s proposal contemplates reducing the work week by a day for all public employees, except for teachers, for whom the cut would mean a day every fortnight.

Recently, and as part of the legislative visits, the fiscal team of the government of Ricardo Rosselló Nevares acknowledged that the Fiscal Plan is based on estimates of revenues that differ from the projections included in the document certified by the OB.

Amendments on the way

The complaint by union leaders –while not halting the discussion of the measure and its upcoming approval- did lead to a commitment by House Speaker, Carlos “Johnny” Méndez, to listen to the grievances during a public hearing he has called for today.

He hinted, also, at the consideration of possible amendments to the project that repeal provisions in collective bargaining agreements long since negotiated, which could prevent compliance with the Fiscal Plan approved by the OB. Union leaders refer to it as “the labor reform for the public sector.”

Among the changes proposed in the measure, there is the reduction of vacation leaves, accumulation of sick days, and holidays are limited to a maximum of 15 days per year. Neither would there be overtime and the Christmas bonus would be capped at $600, among other changes.

“There are no guaranties for job security here, no guaranties that there won’t be a reduction of the work week, no assurances on whether there will be any further increases for the country. Given that uncertainty, a project such as this cannot be approved,” said Pedro Irene Maymí, president of the Authentic Independent Union (UIA, by its Spanish acronym).

The complaint of Irene Maymí, as well as that of other leaders who took part in the meeting, is to examine the way in which measures previously approved have worked and how they’ve evolved, including Law 66, which presumably added funds to the Government’s coffers.

Méndez, for his part, left the door open to considering the proposals made by union leaders, such as increasing by 4% the tax contained in Law 154 on foreign corporations. “This initiative is under evaluation. My inclination is for an increase to 10%, that’d be a lot of help. But we have to evaluate all in the notion that the United States Treasury also has powers over this matters,” Méndez indicated.

“We have to meet some deadlines imposed by the Oversight Board. I don’t want the Board invoking Article III of the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA) and that it be a federal judge, instead of the elected government, who should decide to cut 45,000 jobs in the government and reduce the work week,” he said.

Changes for teachers

The president of the Teachers’ Association, Aida Díaz, was able to submit an amendment –that was accepted by the Executive- for teachers in the public education system to keep the two month summer recess.

Díaz argued –through a letter sent to the governor- that the reduction of vacation leave to 15 days should not apply to teachers because the Department of Education works differently from other agencies.

“The two months of vacation are maintained and the justification is that not all agencies work the same way. In addition to that, we were already excluded from Law 8 (which creates the single employer mechanism) given the profession’s complexity,” said Díaz when leaving the meeting at La Fortaleza.

However, medical leaves for teachers would be kept just as established for the rest of the government’s employees: from the current 20 days, to 18, should the measure be approved as designed. “It’s a two day reduction. We couldn’t get the changes there, but all else stays the same,” said the union leader.

Other teacher representatives also marched to the Legislature. That was the case of the Puerto Rico Teachers Federation (FMPR, by its Spanish acronym) and Únete.

The measure could come to the House floor by tomorrow, Wednesday, at 1:00 p.m.

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