Lawmakers Grill V.I. Negotiator Over Mapp’s Wage Hikes

V.I. Chief Negotiator Natalie Nelson Tang How discusses government raises and the budgets for her department, the Office of Collective Bargaining.
V.I. Chief Negotiator Natalie Nelson Tang How discusses government raises and the budgets for her department, the Office of Collective Bargaining.

Lawmakers on Tuesday grilled Virgin Islands Chief Negotiator Natalie Nelson Tang How, asking her to reconcile what they consider conflicts between Gov. Kenneth Mapp’s recent actions raising wages for executive branch employees and the mandates of both the Office of Collective Bargaining and the Senate.

Tang How, who heads the Office of Collective Bargaining, was presenting her agency’s budget to the Senate Finance Committee.

Sen. Tregenza Roach (IND-STT) repeatedly asked Tang How if she believed the governor has the power to independently set the starting salaries for all unionized employees, and whether she found this to be consistent with the mandates of the Office of Collective Bargaining, which is legally tasked to negotiate salaries with unions.

Tang How told Roach the pay plans have to be negotiated with the collective bargaining units, but in terms of setting the minimum pay, the governor of the Virgin Islands, like any other employer, has a say over the working conditions of government employees.

“I believe that the governor, pursuant to his authority vested in him, as governor of the Virgin Islands, has the authority to set the conditions for the employees of the government of the Virgin Islands, which would include their working conditions, your salaries, and whatever it takes to allow them to operate in behalf of the people of the Virgin Islands,” Tang How said.

Tang How’s response aligns with the administration’s claims on the subject, which has been a bone of contention in the week since Mapp signed an executive order setting a new base pay for executive branch employees. The Legislature’s legal counsel had set out a legal opinion challenging Mapp’s authority to set the new base pay, citing the Revised Organic Act, the federal law setting up the territory’s government. The act gives the Legislature, not the governor, authority over spending, according to the Senate’s legal counsel.

Attorney General Claude Walker got involved, asserting at an Aug. 9 press conference that the governor can move funds around from lump sum budgets without legislative action. Walker and Emile Henderson III, Mapp’s chief legal counsel, repeatedly emphasized government employees are underpaid and deserve more, as they asserted the governor had the legal authority to take this action.

On Thursday, lawmakers stressed that they do not oppose pay increases for government employees, but they do question the repercussions of the recent wage increases, as well as their legality. Roach said Gov. Mapp’s independent action of setting the base pay for government employees and adding $10,000 to entry-level salaries for policemen and teachers creates a similar ripple effect for employees with more years of service. The problem, according to lawmakers, is the increases for seasoned employees will not reflect the ballpark 30 percent leap as those of their entry-level counterparts.

“I have worked in education the bulk of my life,” said Sen. Kurt Vialet (D-STX). “It is not a good situation for a first-year teacher to come in making $44,000, and I have 11 years of experience and I’m making $681 more … hoping that negotiations are going to be fruitful and I’m going to receive an increase. A teacher who has 12 years makes $44,300.”

Tang How admitted that the raises for experienced teachers employees will not be in the $10,000 range, but added that her office is still waiting for a counterproposal from the American Federation of Teachers.

Roach declared that the entire situation puts unions and the Senate in difficult situations, the former now having to decide whether to accept the $44,000 base salary for entry-level teachers without solid agreements on the rest of the teachers’ salaries, and the Senate now faced with the decision to approve raises that may, in the long run, turn out to be unsustainable.

“Look at the position you’ve put them in, and look at the position you’ve put us in,” said Roach. “Because we have to sound as if we don’t want to pay government employees appropriate and you’re now putting on the union leaders to say to you they don’t want the starting salary because you’re not going to be able to give parity with regard to other members of the bargaining unit.”

Lawmakers pointed out that of the total $15.8 million in the fiscal year 2019 budget earmarked for salary raises across all agencies, more than $10 million will be absorbed by teachers’ raises alone, calling into question how realistic it is for the administration to fund with the remaining $5 million not only similar base-pay raises in other agencies but the accompanying raises for more seasoned employees.

“We don’t want to end up in a situation where raises where given, then after the election, eight percent [salary reduction] came about for two years, individuals were fired, and the government was left in a very horrible situation,” said Vialet.

Tang How said that based on current projections, future government revenues may shoulder some of the increases. Vialet suggested the government might need to significantly cut vacancies and non-essential positions in the executive branch.

“We’re going to need to seriously decrease the abundance of administrative positions,” said Vialet, adding that giving raises to the rank and file requires eliminating, for instance, what turns out to be multiple assistant and deputy commissioner positions for a single agency.

“We’re going to have to revisit, especially in education, revisit all of these individuals placed in semi-administrative positions,” Vialet said. “We’re going to to have to seriously look at how we’re going to utilize our resources if we’re going to sustain the raises.”

Tang-How said her office is working with the Office of Management and Budget, recognizing the need to distinguish “what our critical needs are versus all of the fluff.”

For fiscal year 2019, the Office of Collective Bargaining’s recommended budget totals $920,913, reflecting an increase of $184,563 compared with last year’s appropriation. Of that amount, some $489,549 and $189,364 would go toward personnel and fringe, respectively.

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