Cuomo sparks union furor with pay freeze to cope with revenue crisis


ALBANY — Responding to state government's financial crisis, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has frozen contractual pay increases some unions have negotiated with his administration, igniting howls of protest from some -- but not all -- labor leaders.

Michael B. Powers, president of the New York State Corrections Officer and Police Benevolent Association, offered the most strident dissent.

“Today’s news is yet another slap in the face to the brave men and women in law enforcement and those on the front lines of keeping order in our state’s prison system and our mental health facilities," said Powers, who disclosed last week he has tested positive for the COVID-19 virus amid an outbreak of the contagion at several prisons.

Approximately 80,000 union members had been anticipating a 2% increase in their pay, effective April 1. But officials from the Governor's Office of Employee Relations contacted union leaders Wednesday to say the increase was being deferred, although not canceled.

Cuomo said Thursday the pay freeze was preferable to laying off state employees.

"You could do layoffs or you could buy some time," the governor said.

State Division of Budget spokesman Freeman Klopott said the pay freeze decision will be reviewed in 90 days.

"The state is facing the unfortunate reality of $10 billion to $15 billion in lost revenue due to the COVID-19 driven economic downturn, and has received no help from the federal government to offset this loss even as Washington enacted a $2 trillion bailout," Klopott said.

Taking the decision in stride, Tom Mungeer, president of the New York Troopers PBA, told CNHI: "We do realize that tens of millions of Americans are on unemployment lines right now." Representing 3,800 uniformed troopers, Mungeer said his members also weathered lean contract years following the 2008-2009 recession.

"Nobody's pay is going down," Mungeer said. "The small bump is just being deferred." He said troopers will continue to report to duty and serve New York communities, though more than 50 of them have tested positive for the virus and several dozen more are in quarantine after being exposed to the contagion.

With state finances in shambles, E.J. McMahon, research director for the Empire Center for Public Policy, has called for such a pay freeze several times in recent weeks.

McMahon estimated Thursday that a 2% pay boost across the state workforce would increase spending by $359 million while tax revenues have dropped by at least $10 billion due to the shutdown of numerous businesses deemed by the state to be "non-essential."

McMahon also contended a broader pay freeze for the public employee sector is warranted and unions would be wise not to resist them since a deeper financial calamity could result in deep cuts in government jobs.

"With a severe multi-year fiscal crisis ahead, the need for a broad wage freeze at every level of government is clear," McMahon wrote on his blog. "What’s lacking is the political will on the part of the governor and the Legislature to actually impose one."

Mary Sullivan, the president of the Civil Service Employees Association, New York's largest public employee union, registered strong disagreement with Cuomo's move. “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.

Some union workers took to social media, criticizing Cuomo for approving legislation that significantly raised his own salary.

The governor's annual salary went to $200,000 last year and was increased to $225,000 this year. It will climb to $250,000 in 2021.

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