Presumably thinking he’s got nothing left to lose politically in the second half of his final term, Governor David Ige last week unveiled one of his most brazen (read: worst) proposals yet and suggested that all public workers – including teachers and first responders – take a pay cut to make up for anticipated budget shortfalls due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
News of the cuts first spread quickly within labor unions, which notified workers of the governor’s suggestion.
“In a meeting at the state Capitol, we were informed that the governor wants to implement a 20-percent salary cut for most public employees, including educators, and a 10-percent cut for first responders, such as police officers, firefighters, nurses, and EMTs,” wrote Corey Rosenlee, the president of the teachers union Hawaii State Teacher’s Association (HSTA), in a letter to its members Tuesday, April 14. “These cuts could occur as early as May 1.”
“This is unacceptable,” Rosenlee added. “While we recognize the coronavirus has already started to cripple Hawaiʻi’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.”
Hawaiʻi’s teachers have the lowest salaries in the nation when cost of living is factored in, reported the National Education Association in February. Cutting those already low salaries will continue to exacerbate the state’s chronic teacher shortage, Rosenlee said.
“A 20-percent salary reduction would result in the loss of between $600 and $1,800 in monthly income for our educators. Salaries for Hawaiʻi’s public school educators are already low, and cutting an additional 20 percent will inevitably worsen Hawaiʻi’s teacher shortage crisis, denying our keiki the quality educators they deserve,” he wrote.
Rosenlee pointed to other sources of cash. “Hawaiʻi has access to additional resources,” he wrote. “At the close of last fiscal year, Hawaiʻi had a cash surplus and rainy day fund totaling more than $1 billion. Congress recently appropriated $863 million to our state government with hundreds of millions more for our counties as part of a $2 trillion stimulus package – and lawmakers are discussing additional stimulus funding.”
Randy Perreira, executive director of the stateʻs largest public sector union, Hawaiʻi Government Employees Association (HGEA), was direct about his opinion of the governor.
“Frankly folks, I have lost all confidence that this administration is gonna pull us out of this problem,” he said in a video April 14. “Thatʻs a strong statement, but just like other things that we have seen throughout the tenure of this governor, thereʻs no plan.”
Perreira was right about the absence of a plan. On Wednesday, April 15, Ige presented the idea of pay cuts for public employees to the public during his regularly scheduled news conference, adding that “discussions are ongoing” and that no plan for pay cuts or furloughs has yet been finalized.
Ige commented on the news of pay cuts at the top of the conference, after thanking public workers for their “efforts and unwavering support of the people of Hawaiʻi.”
“Let me be very frank with you,” he said. [T]he main sources of state revenue have been drastically reduced. State government needs to look very differently going forward. Iʻve begun initial conversations with the Legislature and the unions that represent you, but no decisions have been made yet.”
Ige highlighted some of the costs of the COVID-19 crisis, such as the more than 200,000 unemployment claims that have been filed in the state, and $11 million in unemployment benefits that were distributed during the week of April 5. Plus, due to decreased tax revenues, the state is expecting a budget shortfall of about $1.5 billion over the next 15 months.
Still, even among legislators, the proposal was unpopular. State Senate President Ron Kouchi and State House Speaker Scott Saiki issued a joint statement April 15 urging the governor to assess other options.
“Although Governor Ige has the unilateral authority to impose furloughs and salary cuts, we do not agree with such action,” they wrote. “We urge the Governor to obtain better data and analysis before he makes this decision. We also urge him to act on all alternatives, just as the National Governors Association did when it called on Congress four days ago to provide an additional $500 billion to the 50 states to stabilize state budgets due to tax revenue shortfalls.
“Although we disagree with Governor Ige’s proposal, the Legislature will work with him to assess and pursue all options.”
The governorʻs math also did little to rationalize the cuts to his critics, who placed the proposal next to other blunders of Ige’s career, which include the false missile alert and his handling of protests against the Thirty Meter Telescope at Maunakea.
“[S]tarting the conversation with pay cuts to state workers including the teachers (as well as a proposed 10 proposed pay cut for first-responders such as Hawaii State Hospital workers and sheriffs) is either a ‘go in hard’ negotiating strategy…or more of Ige’s ham-handed, empathy-challenged style,” wrote Star Advertiser columnist Lee Cataluna.
Writing for Civil Beat, Trisha Kehaulani Watson said “There’s no doubt that the budget needs to be balanced, but surely someone in government must have the wherewithal to know that the first swing should not include low-level state workers who may already be struggling to get by.”
Watson fired shots at Ige’s leadership.
“This crisis has emphasized why political leaders need to be incredibly smart, skilled and strong,” she wrote. “When a crisis hits, we should have our best at the helm. I can’t imagine anyone thinking this is the case right now. We have for too long tolerated an administration packed with political allies rather than skilled administrators.”
And now, that tolerance of the Ige Administration has caused a situation in which essential workers are faced with additional uncertainty during a global crisis, in the form of threats of pay cuts or furloughs. If anything, though, the crisis has revealed a need for the opposite: a different ethic that doesn’t seek to make up budget shortfalls by first placing the burden on the underpaid and essential workers – one that re-values the worker’s importance in our society and the need for livable wages for all, down to the last fast food worker, cleaner, and grocery store bagger.
What do you think?
Do you think public workers should receive a pay cut to make up for budget shortfalls due to COVID-19?
Take the poll: https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/paycuts