Despite economic crisis, Pritzker won’t consider postponing $261 million in state raises

Mailee Smith

Staff Attorney and Director of Labor Policy

Mailee Smith
/ Labor
April 24, 2020

Despite economic crisis, Pritzker won’t consider postponing $261 million in state raises

With more than 755,000 Illinoisans out of work, state employees are still scheduled to get their automatic raises. Gov. J.B. Pritzker is treating those raises as non-negotiable. Governors in other states would disagree.

Families across Illinois are facing an economic crisis in the wake of Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s stay-at-home orders.

It is estimated that nearly 1.5 million Illinoisans – 24% of the state’s workforce – are affected by the governor’s orders. Over 755,000 filed for unemployment between March 1 and April 18.

Yet Pritzker refuses to consider delaying $261 million in automatic raises to state workers scheduled for July, even as hundreds of thousands of Illinoisans are trying to figure out how to make ends meet.

In an April 23 press conference extending his stay-at-home order through May 30, Pritzker was asked whether that $261 million could be adjusted as part of budget changes.

“That’s not something that we’re currently having discussions about,” he answered. He pointed out that the raises are part of state contracts negotiated with workers.

Refusing to consider discussions with union leaders to delay the scheduled raises appears tone-deaf to the plight of other Illinoisans struggling just to get by.

Pritzker should consider joining his Democratic counterparts in other states who are freezing state worker pay to manage state budgets amid the COVID-19 crisis. Doing so would give the state more room to address urgent budget priorities while also helping to forestall state worker layoffs brought about by state budget deficits down the line.

Democratic governors in New York, Virginia, Minnesota and Pennsylvania have all taken steps to rein in government spending during the pandemic

Democratic governors across the nation are acting now to protect their residents and preserve state funds.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo is invoking his emergency powers to defer a pay raise scheduled for 80,000 state workers. The move, which will be reevaluated after 90 days, frees up $50 million.

Likewise, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam plans to delay state worker raises, as too little is known about the pandemic’s impact on state revenues to move forward now.

“We’ve got to wait for the fog to lift to make budget decisions informed by facts and data,” said his chief of staff, Clark Mercer, according to WSLS.

Similarly, Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz has suspended provisions of the state’s collective bargaining agreements and compensation package in an effort to create more government flexibility to manage state personnel and work during the crisis.

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf has gone even farther, furloughing 9,000 state workers on April 11. To get paid, workers will need to use their own vacation time, sick leave or compensatory time. Otherwise, they can apply for unemployment.

Postponing pay increases frees funds for Illinois’ vulnerable residents

Illinois was home to one of the worst economies in the nation last year, and that was before the COVID-19-induced crash.

Pritzker has already warned of impending financial difficulties with state revenues dropping, according to Crain’s Chicago Business.

And there are still many unknowns, with Illinois’ COVID-19 cases not expected to peak until mid-May.

Yet at this point, the state is still slated to automatically increase the pay of thousands of state workers in the state’s largest bargaining unit, which is represented by AFSCME Council 31, at a cost to the state of $261 million.

These government employees are set to receive at least two raises on July 1: a general increase in pay of 2.1%, which will cost the state $47 million, as well as additional “step” increases for an additional year of service that will cost the state at least $214 million.

Delaying these pay increases would help free state funds to be used for relief for vulnerable Illinoisans and those financially devastated by the crisis. The state also should consider doing the same for other state employees who are not represented by AFSCME Council 31.

Admittedly, this is uncharted territory for the state, and the Illinois Public Labor Relations Act includes provisions providing that the Act and collective bargaining agreements trump most other state laws.

But the portion of the Illinois Emergency Management Agency Act describing the governor’s emergency powers does include the power to “utilize all available resources of the State government as reasonably necessary to cope with the disaster and of each political subdivision of the State.”

What’s more, delaying step increases should be seen by AFSCME Council 31 and the workers it represents as a means to help forestall other more drastic measures, such as the furloughs Pennsylvania’s governor instituted.

Pritzker has already projected a budget shortfall of billions of dollars, according to the Chicago Sun-Times.

That money will have to come from somewhere.

The state has the authority to lay off state workers under the AFSCME contract and can “relieve employees from duty because of lack of work or other legitimate reasons.”

Illinois’ state workers likely would rather keep their jobs – and their current pay – than join the more than 755,000 unemployed workers the state is already struggling to process.

Working with union leaders to delay the currently scheduled state worker raises could help stave off layoffs in the long run.

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