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Retired Teachers Want Their Back Pay Now

Sept. 19, 2006 — A large group of retired teachers gathered Tuesday in the Earle B. Ottley Legislative Hall, demanding that senators and members of the administration begin paying off millions of dollars worth of retroactive pay that has been owed to retirees since the 1993-'94 school year.
According to Barbara Isaac, a representative of the St. Thomas-St. John Association of Retired Education Personnel (a union which stems from the American Federation of Teachers Local 1825), teachers working during that time had negotiated a pay increase, which was never implemented. As a result, the debt has been growing (by compounding interest) for the past 13 years.
"In 1993, a teacher with a master's degree and 21 years of experience was owed $35,000. Today, that sum is no longer valid — instead it has increased to $56,000," Isaac said.
While Isaac could not say how much each retiree is owed, AFT President Vernelle de Lagarde said that both retirees and teachers currently working within the local public school system are owed more than $140 million in retroactive wages.
To address a portion of the debt, Isaac proposed that each retired AFT teacher be given a lump-sum award of $7,000, while each retired AFT paraprofessional, or former clerical staff member, be given a $4,000 lump-sum payment. "After that is done the administration should sit down and negotiate a payment schedule to address the remaining amount of money," she said.
While senators said they were in "full support" of the union's request, some explained that approximately $4.5 million has been appropriated, over the past year, to address certain classes of retirees: those who retired before 1990, those who retired after 1990, and those who did not receive pay raises while they were part of a collective bargaining agreement.
"Although this doesn't address retro, it gives you some relief in the short term," Sen. Ronald E. Russell said. "So some things are being done here to address retirees."
Russell also mentioned that almost "every single union in the territory" is owed retroactive pay and asked union representatives whether it "would be fair" if they were to receive their money first.
Isaac said that current, unionized government employees are receiving step increases within their collective bargaining agreements, which are meant to address retroactive debt. "There are no more raises for us to get," she added. "And we would like some kind of relief for all the years of service we have given."
Isaac explained that while working within the public school system, a majority of the retired teachers faced adverse conditions, such as "hot classrooms without fans" or teaching without "needed supplies like chalk, paper, pens or staplers."
"We always had to pay for these things out of our own pockets," she added. "And we've always had to fight, on a regular basis, for salary increases. Now, we are retired — the aging process has begun, and the wear and tear of life has begun to affect our state of mind and our bodies. Were respectfully urging you to begin to address the issue of retroactive pay, immediately if possible."
Senate President Lorraine L. Berry said she had recently discussed the matter with Karen M. Andrews, chief negotiator for the Office of Collective Bargaining, and requested a "breakdown of all retirees" that have been owed money since 1993.
"She [Andrews] indicated that it would be a very tedious job because the departments and agencies would have to go back into their personnel files to verify who those people are," Berry said, adding that Andrews had also indicated she recently met with members of the government's financial team to discuss plans to start paying off the debt.
Berry said that Andrews had not yet reported the outcome of the meeting. Andrews could not be reached Tuesday for comment.
While senators took no action Tuesday on the union's request, they said that local law already requires a certain percentage of excess revenues realized by the government be put toward addressing "any outstanding debt."
"Over the years, we've never been able to catch up because of the climate of the Virgin Islands," Berry said. "We're only now experiencing an increase in revenues, so we'll be looking at addressing what is owed to employees."
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