The COVID shutdown left more than a million New Yorkers in line for unemployment benefits, but most New York state employees are in line for pay raises next week.

Union contracts inked prior to the pandemic call for most state workers to see 2 percent across-the-board pay hikes this year. About 65,000 workers represented by the Civil Service Employees Association (CSEA) and about 20,000 correctional officers were set for pay bumps on April 1 and another 30,000 state university employees were set to get them on July 1. Both hikes were temporarily delayed as the state grappled with a roughly $8 billion budget gap, but those postponements expire October 1.

The Cuomo administration, which postponed the raises using a little-known (and untested) portion of state law, has been unusually secretive about the process. Neither the state’s labor relations office nor the Budget Division would share copies of letters notifying state employee unions about the delays when requested under the state Freedom of Information Law.

To be sure, Governor Cuomo hasn’t stated any objection to people getting raises in the midst of an economic crisis. He said in April that he wanted “to buy some time” as he pleaded with the federal government to provide the state with unrestricted cash aid—which could be used to pay for retroactive raises. And the governor was only restricting the across-the-board raises, not automatic pay increases tied to seniority. Almost six months later, it’s increasingly unlikely Congress will deliver the type and level of aid Cuomo is seeking any time soon.

What Cuomo should have been doing was working with the Legislature to adopt a statutory pay freeze for both state and local employees—a tool to help control costs, preserve services, and avoid layoffs that federal courts upheld as recently as May. But unlike state government, school districts and local governments haven’t been able to unilaterally postpone raises, and instead had to continue paying them as scheduled. In some cases, that’s forced them to make layoffs to help pay for raises. A pay freeze would save about $1.9 billion during the first year, including about $359 million for state government itself.

Letting state raises proceed would be especially unseemly given that a cadre of state employees received full pay this spring without reporting to work. Unlike many local governments, state agencies did not furlough any idled employees—even though enhanced unemployment insurance benefits would have made many if not most furloughed employees whole.

State officials haven’t yet released an estimate on how much they paid idled workers, but the Times Union reported in May that 36,178 out of 119,135 employees, or just over 30 percent, were working remotely. State officials have not yet disclosed how many of the remaining 70 percent were reporting to work in-person—or how many didn’t work at all.

Data from local governments indicate the figure could be substantial. An audit by the Erie County Comptroller, for instance, showed the county paid $5.9 million for hours not worked. An analysis by the Syracuse Post-Standard found that the City paid police officers about $227,000 to stay home amid the shutdown—while also paying officers $850,000 in overtime.

Cuomo this month said he is not “accepting” the idea that Congress won’t be sending unrestricted aid. But the governor’s failure to take a basic cost-control step like a pay freeze—that is, to stop letting his and local governments’ costs grow—makes it less likely that he can cajole Washington into cutting the state a check with as many zeros as he thinks it deserves.

About the Author

Ken Girardin

Ken Girardin is the Empire Center’s Director of Strategic Initiatives.

Read more by Ken Girardin

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The Empire Center is an independent, non-partisan, non-profit think tank located in Albany, New York. Our mission is to make New York a better place to live and work by promoting public policy reforms grounded in free-market principles, personal responsibility, and the ideals of effective and accountable government.