HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - Union leaders and state lawmakers urged the governor Wednesday to reconsider proposed pay cuts of up to 20% for state employees, saying that slashing salaries so drastically at a time when many families are already struggling with layoffs or reductions in hours would do widespread harm.
“We do not agree with this action,” said Senate President Ron Kouchi and House Speaker Scott Saiki, in a joint statement. “We urge the governor to obtain better analysis before he makes this decision.”
Public sector unions say the cuts would take effect as early as May 1.
In a news conference Wednesday, Gov. David Ige did not confirm the proposal.
But he did say conversations with unions are taking place as the state sees its coffers shrink amid the pandemic, which has brought tourism to a standstill and shuttered hundreds of businesses.
He added that federal stimulus funds to the state and counties cannot be used for salaries.
“We anticipate having to cut $1.5 billion over the next 15 months, which is a significant portion of the state’s budget,” Ige said. “We are looking at an emergency situation.”
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When asked by HNN whether he would also take a pay cut, he said he would.
Public sector unions HSTA and HGEA alerted its members of the proposed pay cuts in a letter on Tuesday night.
In a news conference Wednesday, Hawaii State Teachers Association President Corey Rosenlee said conversations with the Ige administration seemed to indicate the cuts would be imposed.
“The governor is under the impression that he can just impose this. That is something we have concerns with,” said Rosenlee, who represents nearly 14,000 educators.
“Normally, this would need to be bargained. This is definitely a new situation for all of us.”
Rosenlee added the governor should be looking at other emergency funding options to shore up the state’s coffers. “I am terrified about what this is going to do to our teaching force,” he said.
Rosenlee said he’s heard from teachers who are “panicked. They’re scared. They don’t know how they’re going to afford things like food and rent. We have to look at what is the consequence of this.”
The Hawaii Government Employees Association, which represents roughly 40,000 members statewide, confirmed it had also received the pay cuts proposal verbally and plans to reject it.
A spokeswoman said in addition to the 20% pay cut, the governor has proposed a 10% pay cut for first responders in several bargaining units — including nurses, harbor police, correctional workers and deputy sheriffs.
Many of those same first responders are on the front lines of the state’s fight against COVID-19 — a fact HGEA Executive Director Randy Perreira noted in a statement Wednesday.
“They are keeping vital and essential government services running and many are putting their own health and safety at risk because they haven’t been given adequate personal protection equipment,” he said.
“Healthcare workers at the Hawaii State Hospital, a facility with more than 90% court-committed patients, are being told to wear homemade cloth masks. Sheriffs have been given one mask, and conservation and resources enforcement officers have been told to use expired, damaged, moldy and ill-fitting PPE left over from the APEC Economic Leaders Meeting held in 2011. In addition to the vital services public workers provide, every person who remains fully employed during this crisis is contributing to the local economy by purchasing takeout meals at local restaurants and mom and pop businesses, buying locally grown produce, groceries and fabric from local stores to make fabric face masks and are buying other local products. The solution is not more unemployed workers.”
Perreira also recorded a candid video for his members Tuesday, telling them he’d lost “all confidence that this administration is going to pull us out of this problem. .... There’s no plan.”
In a news conference Tuesday afternoon, before the pay cuts proposal was disclosed by the unions, Ige declined to confirm furloughs and straight pay cuts were being discussed.
But he did say, “We are being prudent and looking at all options to reduce costs.”
He added with more than 100 hotels closed and tourism brought to a virtual standstill amid a stay-at-home order and mandatory quarantine for travelers, the state has seen a significant drop in tax revenues.
The pay cuts proposal comes amid widespread pain in the state’s economy.
Some 230,000 people — about one-third of Hawaii’s workforce — have filed for unemployment as hotels, businesses and eateries close their doors.
And nonprofits are getting swamped with requests for aid.
State workers last faced significant pay cuts during the Great Recession.
Back then, so-called “Furlough Fridays” amounted to an 8% pay cut for teachers. The state also laid off workers or eliminated positions and slashed tens of millions of dollars from state programs, including for mental health care.
In a jarring juxtaposition of just how rapid the economic fallout of the pandemic has been, it was just a few months ago that the governor was pledging to boost salaries for Hawaii’s teachers to address a shortage in some areas.
This story will be updated.