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NY deferring workforce pay raises: 'We, frankly, don't have the money'

New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, seen on

New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, seen on Jan. 8. Regarding union raises, Cuomo on Thursday said "let's freeze the raises because that's better than actually losing your job." Credit: AP/Hans Pennink

ALBANY — Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo confirmed Thursday he has deferred pay raises scheduled for April for some 80,000 state workers, a move fiscal hawks had been urging for weeks to deal with the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic.

"We, frankly, don't have the money," Robert Mujica, Cuomo's budget director, said at the governor's daily briefing, about 12 hours after some of the state's major unions began spreading the word about the pay freeze. He has estimated state revenue has taken at least a $10 billion dive since the virus hit New York. The freeze will last at least 90 days and would save New York $50 million.

The governor said union contracts give him the power to enact such freezes in extraordinary circumstances. He said it was either that or layoffs.

"You could do layoffs or you could buy some time," Cuomo said. "Let's freeze the raises because that's better than actually losing your job."

Unions were expecting a 2% raise for many of their members by the end of the month. The largest public-employee union, the Civil Service Employees Association, criticized the decision.

“It’s inexcusable to require our workers to literally face death to ensure the state keeps running and then turn around and deny those very workers their much-deserved raise in this time of crisis,” said CSEA president Mary Sullivan.

The union representing more than 20,000 state prison guards and correction officers in state mental health facilities and other agencies said it "won't stand for it."

“Today’s news is yet another slap in the face to the brave men and women in law enforcement and those on the front lines of keeping order in our state’s prison system and our mental health facilities. Our members are working day and night and are subject to some of the most dangerous conditions in the state," said Michael Powers, president of the New York State Correctional Officers & Police Benevolent Association. 

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"Simply put, we will not stand for this," Powers added. "First, the state denies our members personal protective equipment and now this."

A source said the deferral wouldn't impact the Public Employees Federation, the state's second-largest public sector union.

After the unions made public the pay deferral, Cuomo's office early Thursday morning confirmed the decision. It attributed the decision to the massive drop in state revenue and what it has called insufficient help from the Trump administration.

Freeman Klopott, spokesman for Cuomo's Budget Division, said in an email the administration will "reassess the status of state finances and whether they can be implemented," referring to the raises.

Just a week ago, Cuomo, the State Senate and Assembly enacted a $177 billion budget that doesn't actually have all the revenue needed to support it, counts on more federal help and gives the governor extraordinary powers to cut spending on a monthly basis.  

E.J. McMahon, research director for the Empire Center think tank in Albany, had been among those urging Cuomo to delay pay raises while the state grapples with the huge budget deficit caused by the pandemic. Cutbacks now could save bigger reductions later, he said in a blog post.

"By flattening the curve of rising payroll costs, a wage freeze also would minimize the amounts of staff cuts and layoffs that will surely be necessary to balance the state budget during the coming fiscal crisis," McMahon wrote Thursday.

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