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Pritzker restores state worker pay boosts, but says little about cost

Gov. J.B. Pritzker meets with reporters on Tuesday. Photo by Tina Sfondeles.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker meets with reporters on Tuesday. Photo by Tina Sfondeles.

SPRINGFIELD — Gov. J.B. Pritzker spent Day One as the state’s chief executive undoing some of his predecessor’s handiwork — unfreezing the pay levels of about 20,000 state workers by reinstating increases they had been denied.

The move was hailed by the workers’ union — which had endorsed Pritzker’s candidacy — but the newly seated governor could not immediately detail the cost or explain how he planned to pay for what he called an effort to lift up working families.

That prompted the state Republican Party to blast Pritzker for imperiling his promise of a balanced budget by making “reckless spending promises.”

And after throwing a lavish inaugural ball on the Illinois State Fairgrounds a night earlier, the billionaire Democrat was mum when asked how much he doled out for swanky chandeliers, an Earth harp, a magician and a band that will also play the Super Bowl.

The governor announced his decision to unfreeze the state workers’ pay increases at a statehouse news conference.

Former Gov. Bruce Rauner’s administration stopped paying step pay raises when the state’s contract with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 31 expired in 2015. The raises are annual increases on the anniversary of a date of hire. Some state jobs have eight steps; others have 10.

About 38,000 AFSCME members work for the state, and union officials say 20,000 of them are eligible for step raises.

And even though a court ordered the state to dole out back pay to affected employees, Rauner’s administration did not comply. Last year, Rauner’s budget office estimated it would cost the state between $170 million and $500 million.

But Pritzker on Tuesday said the state will initiate the process of restoring the salary steps to employees whose advances had been frozen since 2015.

“It’s very important to us to establish on Day One that this is a very different kind of administration and that we’re focusing on lifting up working families,” Pritzker said in his Springfield office.

The announcement means employees will get step raises going forward. It does not address the sticky problem of back pay, although Pritzker spokeswoman Jordan Abudayyeh said the issue will be addressed when contract talks begin again with AFSCME.

As for how much the pay increases will cost the state — and how the state will pay for it — the Pritzker administration did not immediately have an answer.

“With multiple unions representing workers across many agencies, it will take several weeks to provide an accurate picture of both cost and timing of the restoration,” Abudayyeh said in a statement. “However, the Governor firmly believes that workers who have served the state without step increases should be brought to their current step level as expeditiously as possible.”

AFSCME says there is no added payroll for step increases in a typical budget year because of attrition. But the union now has thousands who were paid at a lower rate for the past four years. The union applauded Pritzker’s announcement and said it hopes employees see a bump in their pay “right away.”

And as for a contract for the state’s largest government worker union, both AFSCME and Pritzker’s administration said talks will begin soon. AFSCME plans to meet with its state bargaining committee — which includes delegates from 75 local unions — at the end of January. When Rauner took office in January 2015, talks didn’t begin until late February, the union said.

Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker offers a pen to state Rep. Anna Moeller, D-Elgin, who with state Sen. Cristina Castro, D-Elgin, left, are sponsors of a bill that prohibits employers from asking about salary history in interviews, during a press conference and signing ceremony Tuesday, Jan. 15, 2019 in the governor's office at the Capitol in Springfield, Ill. Former Gov. Bruce Rauner had vetoed the plan twice, but Pritzker signed an executive order on his first full day in office making the measure applicable to state government hiring. (Rich Saal/The State Journal-Register via AP)

Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker offers a pen to state Rep. Anna Moeller, D-Elgin, who with state Sen. Cristina Castro, D-Elgin, left, are sponsors of a bill that prohibits employers from asking about salary history in interviews, during a press conference and signing ceremony Tuesday, Jan. 15, 2019 in the governor’s office at the Capitol in Springfield, Ill. Former Gov. Bruce Rauner had vetoed the plan twice, but Pritzker signed an executive order on his first full day in office making the measure applicable to state government hiring. (Rich Saal/The State Journal-Register via AP)

AFSCME Council 31 Executive Director Roberta Lynch called the step raise announcement “important progress toward ending Bruce Rauner’s illegal four-year freeze on step progression for state employees.”

“The process of placing employees on the appropriate step should be completed without delay,” Lynch said in a statement. “It’s critical that the state also move quickly to make employees whole for the wages they have been wrongfully denied since 2015.”

The Illinois Republican Party quickly noted the announcement came “without specifying the costs to taxpayers.”

“Yesterday, we heard promises from Pritzker that he would work with Democrats and Republicans to balance the budget,” Illinois Republican Party Chairman Tim Schneider said in a statement. “Yet today, Pritzker unilaterally made reckless spending promises without specifying the costs, creating more budget uncertainty.”

Pritzker, too, signed two executive orders and a measure that will require the Illinois Department of Labor to, in part, release reports on the diversity of workers employed on public works projects and provide recommendations to increase the employment of women and minorities on projects.

One executive order ensures that prospective female state workers can’t be asked about their salary history. Another orders state agencies to do a self-review to make sure they’re in compliance with data-transparency laws.

Pritzker threw a big party on the Illinois State Fairgrounds after taking the oath of office — transforming the Exposition Building into a fancy reception hall. Pritzker footed the bill for the ball, with proceeds from tickets going to two charities. The billionaire governor booked Maroon 5 — who’ll soon play the Super Bowl — as the entertainment. At his first press conference as governor on Tuesday, Pritzker was asked twice about the cost of the festivities.

He did not answer.