SAN JUAN – Shrill whistles mixed with drums, tambourines and the clacking of spoons on pots as public employees shut down streets in Puerto Rico’s capital Friday to demand better pay and pensions.
The crowd shimmied and clapped as demonstrators held up signs reading, “Fair wages now!”
It’s a call that has echoed across Puerto Rico in recent weeks as government employees and supporters take to the streets, emboldened by thousands of public school teachers who abandoned classrooms in early February to demand raises and better pensions.
Protests have multiplied and the unrest is posing one of the biggest challenges for Gov. Pedro Pierluisi a year into his term.
“The people kicked the U.S. military out of Vieques. They kicked out a governor. We can make this happen,” said Abner Dumey, who teaches history in the northern town of Naranjito.
Legislators are the only public workers who have an automatic cost-of-living increase for their salaries. Most of the U.S. territory's other public employees have not gotten pay raises in more than a decade — sometimes two — as the cost of living has risen and the island has suffered a lengthy economic crisis and a government bankruptcy in the aftermath of deadly hurricanes, earthquakes and the pandemic.
Power and water bills are nearly 60% higher in Puerto Rico than the U.S. average. Groceries are 18% more expensive than on the mainland, although health care and housing costs, among others, are lower, according to the island’s Institute of Statistics.
Marcia Rivera, an economist and sociologist whose research focuses largely on poverty and inequality, said government workers are grappling with rising prices while getting the same salaries they had in 2008.
“They’re fed up,” she said.
Many public employees work one or two additional jobs to make ends meet.
Carlos Javier Vázquez, for one, is a paramedic in the mountain town of Barranquitas, and he also teaches emergency medicine and operates an ambulance company to help support his wife and four children. It's a life that is exhausting and not sustainable, he said.
But with paramedics in Puerto Rico earning a base salary of $1,725 a month, he said he has no choice. “It’s extremely difficult to survive on that.”
In an attempt to quell the demonstrations, the governor promised teachers a $1,000 monthly increase just days after 70% of them walked out of their classrooms in protest earlier this month. He expanded the offer to school principals, regional superintendents and others just days later.
Shortly afterward, he promised a $500 monthly increase for firefighters and a 30% raise for paramedics.
Pierluisi’s actions only fanned anger among other government employees, with some demanding their own pay increases as others fumed over the governor’s recent comment that no one is forced to become a firefighter or police officer.
A problem is that all those increases promised by Pierluisi rely on federal funds that expire in upcoming years, and many people did not believe the governor when he promised to find local funds to make the increases permanent.
That promise also worried economists. Puerto Rican leaders are trying to restructure a $70 billion public debt following decades of mismanagement, corruption and excessive borrowing that forced the government to declare the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history in 2017, just months before Hurricane Maria battered the island.
“It’s highly irresponsible,” said Antonio Fernós, a Puerto Rico economist and university professor who believes the government is unable to make the increases permanent. “It’s Public Finance 101 of what not to do.”
Fernós said one of the key things that made the government go bankrupt was to use temporary funding for fixed costs.
“They certainly haven’t learned their lesson yet,” he said. “Puerto Rico is the poster child for government finances mismanagement. This is the worst timing for all wage earners.”
Rivera, the poverty researcher, agreed, saying no salary increase should be authorized without having a financial policy in place. She added that the governor should not manage affairs by responding to yelling.
“He has opened Pandora’s box,” she said. “He cannot meet all the demand that he himself generated.”
Pierluisi’s announcement came just weeks after the federal control board that oversees Puerto Rico’s finances approved a fiscal plan that contained smaller pay increases for teachers, firefighters and other employees. It said the government’s financial state did not allow for more.
The governor has said a new compensation plan will go into effect next year and bring higher wages for thousands of public employees, yet he also says he won't be able to raise the pay of all public workers.
“I obviously cannot please everyone,” he said Wednesday. “That is impossible.”
That same day, he announced a 30% pay increase for dispatchers and medical emergency technicians including paramedics. On Thursday, he announced a $500 monthly increase for prison officers.
And while economists are warning about the lack of financing, union leaders say the promised increases are 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 the pension she is to get upon retirement is being cut from $2,400 a month to $960. She said she struggles now after not getting a raise in 12 years.
“I can only buy the essentials. I never have a full fridge,” Ramos said, adding that a hefty portion of her salary goes to paying her daughter’s college education.
Migdalia Santiago, who is also a special education teacher, said she faces similar struggles.
“Pay the lights, you don’t pay water,” she said.
Public school teachers in Puerto Rico earn a base salary of $1,750 a month and are demanding a minimum 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 previously could retire at age 55 after 30 years of service with up to 75% of their salary. Now, the minimum retirement age is 58 and they get only 33% of their salary, he said.
“The quality of life, with those salaries they earn, is a misery,” Tirado said.