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Pay frozen for New York state workers

Matt Ryan New York Now

Gov. Andrew Cuomo quietly froze the pay of 80,000 state workers Wednesday night, saying that with the state’s finances in tatters from the fallout from the coronavirus pandemic, he had little choice. 

Most state employees were due to receive a 2% pay raise in their next paychecks under terms of collective bargaining agreements worked out between their unions and Cuomo’s administration. 

But around midnight Wednesday, the governor’s budget office informed the unions that the pay raise is on hold for at least 90 days. 

Cuomo says with the state facing a $10 billion to $15 billion deficit, and a steep drop in revenue with almost all businesses closed, he has few choices right now. 

“The options are, you could do layoffs of state workers -- option A,” said Cuomo. “Option B, you could buy some time with freezing the raises to state workers. I choose option B.”  

Unions condemned the move.

Mary Sullivan, the president of the CSEA, the largest state employee union, said many workers are providing essential services like caring for the sick and helping people get unemployment benefits. 

“It’s inexcusable to require our workers to literally face death to ensure the state keeps running and then turn around and deny those very workers their much-deserved raise in this time of crisis,” Sullivan said in a statement. 

Michael Powers, the president of the New York State Correctional Officers and Police Benevolent Association, said it’s a “slap in the face” to those on the front lines in the state’s prisons, with hundreds of guards testing positive for the virus.  

E.J. McMahon with the conservative-leaning fiscal watchdog group the Empire Center said delaying or canceling salary increases for public workers right now makes sense, with New York and other states facing their most severe fiscal crisis in decades.

McMahon, in an interview on Skype, said it should not be seen as a judgment of the worth of the workers.

“It’s not a matter of whether they deserve it or not,” McMahon said. “It’s a matter of whether everybody is broke or not.” 

McMahon said many new Yorkers are either jobless, worried about keeping their jobs, or facing a pay decrease.

“We are now in a completely different world from the one in which these contracts were negotiated,” he said.  

McMahon questioned, though, the way the governor carried out the change and wondered whether it could withstand a court challenge.  

“I think it's uncharted territory; no one has ever attempted it in this way,” McMahon said. “His way of doing it, almost by stealth, is not going to help his case for making it stick.” 

He said it would be better to get the Legislature to agree to a law that freezes the salaries. 

The pay freeze does not apply to workers in local governments or in school districts. And the governor’s budget director, Robert Mujica, said right now, the freeze is temporary. 

“The state only has a certain amount of resources. We’re trying to prioritize those resources right now to fund the health care crisis,” said Mujica. “Let’s take a break and see if the federal government is going to step up and provide the state with more resources to deal with the revenue shortfall, and then we can deal with those commitments.” 

Mujica says if Congress and President Donald Trump agree to another federal bailout package and the state gets more help, the salary increases could be reinstated.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of public radio stations in New York state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.