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In Puerto Rico, thousands of public employees march over wages, pensions

The protest in front of the governor's mansion is the second in less than a week, fueled in part by anger over his comment that no one is forced to be a police officer or firefighter.

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — Public employees blew whistles and banged on pots on Wednesday as a couple thousand of them marched to the governor’s mansion to demand salary increases and improved pensions.

The protest at the mansion is the second in less than a week, fueled in part by anger over Gov. Pedro Pierluisi’s recent comment that no one is forced to be a police officer or firefighter.

“Insensitive. Arrogant,” read one of the posters that protesters held aloft as they marched to the historic part of Puerto Rico’s capital known as Old San Juan.

Pierluisi on Monday announced a temporary $1,000 monthly salary increase for teachers and on Wednesday he said it would be extended to school principals, regional superintendents and others.

The increase, which relies on federal funds, was announced after 70 percent of the territory’s public school teachers abandoned their classrooms on Friday to demand higher salaries, improved working conditions and better pensions. The federal funds are expected to run out in two years, but the governor promised he would find other money to make the increase permanent.

Image: Teachers' protest in San Juan
People carry a giant flag as they participate in a teachers' protest through the streets of Old San Juan to demand a salary increase and better working conditions, in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on Feb. 4, 2022.Ricardo Arduengo / Reuters file

The base salary of public school teachers in Puerto Rico, $1,750 a month, hasn’t changed in 13 years. While some teachers praised the upcoming increase, union leaders noted that they are still seeking a base salary of $3,500 a month.

Joining Wednesday’s demonstration were dozens of firefighters who also are demanding a salary increase and have shuttered fire stations in protest. Firefighters earn a base salary of $1,500 a month but are seeking $2,500 plus an improved pension plan, said Isiana Natal, a spokeswoman for their union.

They recently received a $250 salary increase approved by the previous administration, but the union has said it’s not sufficient.

Natal noted that there are supposed to be 1,400 firefighters serving the island of 3.2 million people, but only 1,000 remain. She added that of a group of 140 who graduated from the academy in December, 40 already have resigned.

The union also has said that fire stations are in deplorable conditions and haven’t been fixed since Hurricane Maria struck in September 2017, and that their protective equipment is severely deteriorated.

Puerto Rico has endured an extended economic crisis and increases in utility bills as the government tries to emerge from bankruptcy and restructure a portion of its more than $70 billion public debt load.

Public employees pledged to organize another protest next week as they marched toward the governor’s mansion, with one person holding up a banner that read, “If there’s no justice for the people, let there be no peace for the government.”

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