By DÁNICA COTO, Associated Press

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — Four men made their way to the parking lot before dawn, then sat blocking the entrance and tied their arms to await the arrival of hundreds of federal and state employees to the working day.

Protesting years without a pay rise, the four employees of the Puerto Rico Highways and Transportation Authority refused to budge. A specialist police unit eventually intervened to remove them and, as they were handcuffed, one of the men shouted, “Decent pay! Give us what you owe us!

It’s a cry that has echoed in Puerto Rico in recent weeks as government workers 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 are growing, with union leaders calling for another demonstration on Friday, and social unrest poses one of the biggest challenges for Governor Pedro Pierluisi a year into his term.

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“People kicked the US military out of Vieques. They fired a governor. We can do it,” said Abner Dumey, who teaches history in the northern town of Naranjito.

Legislators are the only civil servants to benefit from an automatic increase in the cost of living for their salaries. Other civil servants in the US territory have not gotten a raise in more than a decade – sometimes two – as the cost of living rises and the island struggles. emerging from a long economic crisis and government bankruptcy following deadly hurricanes, earthquakes and the pandemic.

Electricity and water bills are nearly 60% higher in Puerto Rico than the US average. Groceries are 18% more expensive than on the mainland, although costs for health care and housing, among other things, 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 civil servants are struggling with rising prices while receiving the same salaries as in 2008.

“They’re fed up,” she said.

Many civil servants take on one or two extra jobs to make ends meet.

Carlos Javier Vázquez, for his part, is a paramedic in the mountain town of Barranquitas, and he also teaches emergency medicine and operates an ambulance business to help support his wife and four children. It’s an exhausting and unsustainable life, he says.

But with paramedics in Puerto Rico earning a base salary of $1,725 ​​a month, he said he had no choice. “It’s extremely difficult to survive with that.”

In an attempt to quell the protests, the governor promised teachers a monthly raise of $1,000 just days after 70% walked out of their classrooms in protest earlier this month. He expanded the offer to principals, regional superintendents and others a few days later.

Soon after, he promised a monthly raise of $500 for firefighters and a 30% raise for paramedics.

Pierluisi’s actions have only stoked the anger of other government workers, with some demanding their own pay raises while others resent the governor’s recent comment that no one is forced to become a firefighter or policeman.

One problem is that all of those increases Pierluisi promised rely on federal funds that expire in coming years, and many people didn’t believe the governor when he promised to find local funds to make the increases permanent.

The promise has also worried economists as Puerto Rican leaders attempt to restructure a $70 billion public debt after decades of mismanagement, corruption and excessive borrowing that forced the government to declare the largest municipal bankruptcy in US history in 2017, just months before Hurricane Maria hit the island. .

“It’s highly irresponsible,” said Antonio Fernós, an economist and university professor from Puerto Rico, who believes the government is incapable of making the increases permanent. “It’s public finance 101 of what not to do.”

Fernós said one of the main reasons the government went 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 mismanagement of public finances. This is the worst time for all workers.

Rivera, the poverty researcher, agreed, saying no salary increases should be allowed without having a financial policy in place. She added that the governor should not run business by responding to shouting.

“He opened Pandora’s box,” she said. “He cannot meet all the demand that he himself has generated.”

Pierluisi’s announcement came just weeks after the federal board of control that oversees Puerto Rico’s finances approved a budget plan that included smaller pay increases for teachers, firefighters and other employees. He said the government’s financial situation did not allow more.

The governor said a new compensation plan will come into effect next year and bring higher salaries to thousands of public sector employees, but he also said he would not be able to increase the salary of all public sector employees.

“I obviously can’t please everyone,” he said on Wednesday. “It’s impossible.”

On the same day, he announced a 30% pay rise for dispatchers and emergency medical technicians, including paramedics. On Thursday, he announced a $500 monthly raise for corrections officers.

And while economists warn of funding shortfalls, union leaders say the promised increases are just 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 would increase from $2,400 a month to $960. She said she is now struggling after not getting a raise in 12 years.

“I can only buy the essentials. I never have a full fridge,” Ramos said, adding that much of his salary goes to paying for his daughter’s college education.

Migdalia Santiago, who is also a special education teacher, said she faced similar difficulties.

“Pay for lights, you don’t pay for water,” she said.

Public school teachers in Puerto Rico earn a base salary of $1,750 per month and require a minimum of $3,500. Meanwhile, firefighters earn a base salary of $1,500 a month and are asking for $2,500 and an improved pension plan.

Union leader José Tirado said firefighters could previously retire at 55 after 30 years of service with up to 75% of their salary. Now the minimum retirement age is 58 and they only get 33% of their salary, he said.

“The quality of life, with these wages they earn, is misery,” Tirado said.

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