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Union asks governor to restore pay raises

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – A New Mexico labor union is asking Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham to use some of the state’s more than $1.7 billion in federal stimulus funds to restore state employee pay raises that were pared back due to a pandemic-related economic downturn.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham

In a Thursday letter, the president of the local chapter of the Communications Workers of America also asked the Democratic governor to consider retroactive hazard pay bonuses to essential government workers on the front lines during the pandemic and to raise the minimum wage for state workers to $15 per hour.

“It is the least that our state can do to show our appreciation to workers who jeopardized their health and well-being in order to serve the state during a crisis,” CWA Local 7076 President Dan Secrist said in his letter.

However, a Lujan Grisham spokeswoman said Thursday it’s unclear whether U.S. Treasury guidance would allow for the stimulus dollars to be used toward employee compensation.

“Broadly speaking, the funding has to be tied directly to COVID-related expenditures, and it’s debatable whether that would apply there,” Lujan Grisham spokeswoman Nora Meyers Sackett told the Journal.

State workers making less than $50,000 annually got a 1% pay raise during the budget year that started in July 2020 – and the Lujan Grisham administration avoided furloughs and layoffs during the pandemic.

All state employees will receive an additional 1.5% salary increase when the new fiscal year starts July 1, under a $7.4 billion budget plan passed by lawmakers in March.

However, teachers and state workers were previously slated to get 4% pay increases under last year’s budget bill that lawmakers had to trim due to a double whammy of falling oil prices and the pandemic.

Linsey Hurst, the local CWA chapter vice president for the New Mexico Environment Department, said the cumulative effect of small or nonexistent state employee pay raises over the last decade or so has led to high turnover rates and employee burnout.

“When pay rates stagnate over a period of years, it means you’re further and further behind the cost of living,” Hurst said in an interview.

She also said pay increases given to some top Governor’s Office staffers and Cabinet secretaries during the pandemic has been “a little hard to take” for rank-and-file workers.

For instance, Environment Secretary James Kenney received an 8% temporary raise this spring that was intended to reflect his expanded job duties during the pandemic.

Another state worker, Louise Ortiz of Santa Fe, said her pay rate is set at slightly more than $12.50 per hour – or only slightly higher than the capital city’s minimum wage.

She said she was assigned to do contact tracing for COVID-19 exposure during the pandemic at the same pay level, despite the fact contract employees hired by the state were paid more.

“It’s frustrating and it’s demoralizing,” Ortiz told the Journal. “I don’t feel appreciated.”

Spending authority

Lawmakers and the Governor’s Office have clashed in recent months over spending authority for federal funds.

Legislative analysts recently told lawmakers that federal guidance allows for much – and maybe even all – of the $1.75 billion New Mexico stands to get from the American Rescue Plan to be simply plugged into the state’s general fund, making it available for a wide range of purposes.

Rep. Patricia Lundstrom, D-Gallup, the chairwoman of the Legislative Finance Committee, said lawmakers are still awaiting the Governor’s Office’s plan for spending New Mexico’s allocation of federal dollars after Lujan Grisham used her line-item veto authority to strike down a legislative plan to disburse much of the state’s share.

But Lundstrom said Tuesday she would support the general concept of using some of the federal funds to address state worker compensation levels.

“I just feel there’s enough money coming in that compensation needs to be a consideration,” she told the Journal, citing specifically low-pay levels for some workers who process unemployment benefit claims for the state Department of Workforce Solutions.

Legal concerns

The issue of paying public employees more for COVID-19-related work has raised some legal concerns.

Albuquerque Public Schools recently had to halt its plan to give extra payments to employees after State Auditor Brian Colón’s office determined they would violate the state Constitution’s anti-donation clause.

However, lawmakers this year approved a bill authorizing a one-time $300 pay bonus for legislative staffers who worked in the Roundhouse during the COVID-19 pandemic.

That bill was signed into law by Lujan Grisham, who criticized her predecessor, Republican ex-Gov. Susana Martinez, on the campaign trail in 2018 for downsizing state government during her time in office.

With a new election cycle looming next year, Lujan Grisham’s spokeswoman said Tuesday the governor hopes to “be able to continue to adjust salaries appropriately and wherever possible moving forward to reward hard-working state employees as we build state government back up.”

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