BY E.J. McMAHON
The Cuomo administration is quietly extending a temporary freeze on scheduled pay hikes for about 135,000 unionized state government employees and public college faculty members—although the largest affected labor union says it still expects those bucks to flow retroactively to its members in the coming fiscal year. Based on previous estimates, the retro pay hike will ultimately cost the state a cool $200 million and $300 million, in addition to further raises scheduled to take effect in the coming fiscal year.
First imposed April 1-June 30, and renewed for two three-month periods then, the pay freeze has been extended for another three months, to the end of the current fiscal year on March 31, the Division of the Budget and state comptroller’s office both confirmed today. Under current union contracts, about 65,000 state workers represented by the Civil Service Employees Association (CSEA), as well as more than 20,000 corrections officers and other smaller employee categories, were due to see their base wages and salaries rise 2 percent when the current fiscal year began April 1.
Also affected by the freeze are 30,000 State University of New York (SUNY) employees, who were scheduled to receive 2 percent raises in July, and more than 20,000 City University of New York (CUNY) faculty due for raises in November. The remaining one-third of state workers, including agency police officers, corrections supervisors, and about 52,000 white-collar workers represented by the Public Employees Federation, are working under expired contracts. State worker unions have generally sought, and won, retroactive pay raises matching those given to other unions.
However, throughout the past nine months, the state has continued paying seniority-based “step” increases, which vary by job title, bargaining unit and hiring date.
The Cuomo administration, normally prone to hyperbole on a wide range of subjects, continues to avoid any pro-active announcements of its policy on employee wages. The latest wage freeze extension as first revealed Monday in a post on the website of Local 1000 of the Civil Service Employees Association (CSEA):
It is unfortunate that the U.S. Senate has once again stalled and refused to agree to send aid to state and local governments facing severe budget deficits. This lack of aid has caused New York to again delay state worker wage increases that should have been paid last April. Right now, we are told it’s either continue to delay wage increases or layoff workers, and neither is acceptable to CSEA.
Our campaign to keep fighting for this needed aid will continue, until CSEA members are made whole with full retroactive payment of the money they are owed. We continue to pursue our legal challenge through the process. We have to fight even harder to ensure NYS and our localities can get through this pandemic and are not forced to layoff workers who have shown up for work day after day in spite of the risks.
We are going into a difficult [state legislative] budget session. CSEA’s top priority will be to stop any layoffs and get our state workers their raise.
While CSEA blames the (now former) Republican U.S. Senate majority for failing to provide more aid to states and localities, the federal stimulus bill passed by the Senate and House in December and ultimately signed (after a veto threat) by President Trump included at least $4 billion in budget relief to New York State via added school aid, as noted in my op-ed in today’s New York Post.
Cuomo repeatedly (and falsely) has claimed that the state has a $15 billion deficit. The actual figure is considerably smaller; thanks to stronger revenues and the latest stimulus bill, there may be no deficit at all for the current year. Next year is another story, however; the fiscal 2022 budget shortfall is officially projected at $16.7 billion.
Cuomo’s original freeze and its two previous three-month extensions were both grounded in the excuse that the state was waiting for further unrestricted COVID-19 relief aid from the federal government. In other words, the state government’s professed “need” for a federal bailout includes money to pay business-as-usual pay hikes to already well compensated state workers amid a severe post-pandemic recession.
While the governor has provided himself with state budgetary relief via the administrative freeze on wage hikes, he has not made any move to propose a statutory freeze on wage hikes for local governments or school districts. To the contrary, he has added to the stress on cash-strapped New York cities by withholding $37 million in unrestricted state aid to municipalities, even while complaining loudly that New York’s state government should receive billions more than it already receives from Washington.
Unlike Cuomo’s temporary delay in processing pay increases, a statutory freeze such as those imposed on New York City, Nassau County, the city of Buffalo and other distressed localities in past fiscal emergencies, would suspend scheduled increases and make them effective only after the emergency had ended, with no retroactive pay required for the emergency period. This would give the state and local governments and school districts breathing room to adjust to a sharp drop in tax revenues that followed Cuomo’s initial coronavirus shutdown in March.
E.J. McMahon is a senior fellow at the Empire Center for Public Policy.