Thousands of public employees from across Puerto Rico took to the streets Wednesday to demand higher salaries and better pensions.
The demonstration followed a protest by teachers on Friday demanding a temporary increase of $1,000 per month for public educators. Gov. Pedro Pierluisi announced this week that funds from the U.S. Department of Education would be used to provide the wage boost.
But at a press conference Monday, Pierluisi raised eyebrows when he said being a teacher, firefighter or any other public employee was not an obligation.
“No one here is forced to be a police officer or a firefighter, but those who decide towards that calling will have to assume that huge responsibility and if for any reason they question if they should continue to do so amid the salary or work conditions, they are not obligated to remain in their role,” said Pierluisi.
The comment caused outrage among many public employees and other residents on the island.
“It’s disrespectful,” Spanish teacher Leny Colón told ABC News. Colón traveled to the protest from Coamo, located about 60 miles away from San Juan. She said she attended the protest because she is a teacher, but also supports other public employees.
“We are here because we have a calling but this calling shouldn’t be punished… this is a community fight,” Colón said.
For Carlos Torres, a teacher from San Juan, the government’s comments were “insensible”.
“If we wouldn’t have pressured him and we wouldn’t have marched Friday he wouldn’t have done anything,” Torres told ABC News, referring to a new temporary salary increase that goes into effect on July 1.
“Our team has made the necessary calculations and has consulted the federal government, and we’ve been able to identify ESSER funds to provide incentives for teachers,” Pierluisi announced in a press release Feb. 7.
According to the U.S. Department of Education, The Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER) is part of the Education Stabilization budget. Congress allocated $13.2 billion from the $30.7 billion to address the COVID-19 impact on schools across the nation.
Although the raise was praised by many, the wave of negative response from Puerto Ricans in response to the governor's other comments keeps growing -- and the leader says he has nothing to apologize for.
“Apologize for what? I did a lot of comments in solidarity with all the claims being made by the people,” Pierluisi said at a press conference on Tuesday.
As for the dispute over salaries, work conditions and retirement plans, many public employees say they will not stop fighting until they see a change.
“Education, safety and health is very important," Colón said. “It’s time to make justice for all Puerto Ricans.”