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State workers seek timetable for back pay

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State employees in line to receive up to five years of back pay for a raise negotiated in 2008 but never fully paid are petitioning Gov. Susana Martinez to commit to a date the checks will be written six months after courts ordered the payments.

The pressure for the state to issue the back pay for about 10,000 state employees comes after the New Mexico Supreme Court ruled in May that the state has an obligation to fulfill its end of a bargain to increase union-represented employees’ pay between 3 percent and 5.9 percent starting in July 2008. Employees instead received 2.9 percent raises.

The Supreme Court ordered the state to pay employees the difference in lost wages since 2008.

The state has estimated those payments will total about $23 million.

The form-letter petitions to Martinez, organized by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union, say administration officials had confirmed the payments were “on track” to be issued this year but then put on hold pending a court enforcement order.

AFSCME members “respectfully request you state publicly when the checks will begin to be written and mailed,” the petitions being sent to the governor say.

AFSCME spokesman Miles Conway declined to elaborate on the petitions, saying the union is at a delicate stage in its five-year effort to implement the pay raise promised under Gov. Bill Richardson in 2008.

“In good faith we understand the state is working on all the calculations and that the state’s task force is meeting,” Miles said in an email. “AFSCME expects to continue meeting with the governor’s administration to settle as quickly and smoothly as the situation allows.”

A flier from AFSCME asking members to sign the petitions to Martinez had a more aggressive tone. “It’s time to stop crying over spilt milk. … Pay the fine and write the checks,” the flier says.

Martinez spokesman Enrique Knell said that the state Personnel Office has not committed to the payments being issued by a certain date and that the administration was not waiting for a court enforcement order.

Instead, the six-month delay since the Supreme Court order for the back pay has been caused by time-consuming calculations necessary to determine the appropriate pay for each of the estimated 10,000 employees who qualify for a repayment, Knell said.

“Issuing these payments is not nearly as simple as the unions would like to believe,” Knell said in an email. “Payments cannot be issued without calculating the specific amount owed to each of as many as 10,000 past and current individual employees, taking into account every raise, transfer, suspension etc. over the last five years. This is a lengthy and complex process and one that needs to be done correctly before payments are issued,” Knell said in an email.

Knell said in a follow-up email that the process for calculating the back pay was compiled by a multiagency team and added “that process will be shared with attorneys for the unions before it is used to calculate salary adjustments.”

He said current state employees will have their back-pay checks calculated first.

The negotiated union raises were not fully paid in 2008 after Richardson administration officials opted to use $13 million appropriated by the Legislature to instead issue smaller raises to all classified state employees, some of them not affiliated with the union.

The Court of Appeals said the state should have provided the bargained-for raises first, at a cost of about $8 million, then used the remaining $5 million for raises for other workers.

That directive was affirmed by the state Supreme Court. The state increased the wages of employees with no contractual rights “at the expense of those state employees who had enforceable contractual rights,” the Supreme Court said.

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