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Teachers in Puerto Rico protest for better wages and pensions

ADRIAN FLORIDO, HOST:

It's been about a week since close to three quarters of Puerto Rico's more than 20,000 public school teachers decided not to show up for work. They say they're fed up with the dismal pay, made worse by the fact that soon, changes to their pension system will make surviving as a teacher on the island even harder. A march and protest today, originally planned as a teacher's strike, has expanded to include a wide range of public sector employees, from firefighters to police, who say they are bearing the brunt of Puerto Rico's ongoing debt crisis. We're joined now by Jose Cintron. He's a middle school English teacher in the town of Barceloneta. Mr. Cintron, thanks for joining ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

JOSE CINTRON: Thank you guys for calling me for the interview.

FLORIDO: Teachers in Puerto Rico earn a starting salary of about $1,750 a month, about $20,000 a year. That's a really low salary for full-time credentialed teachers. I've lived in Puerto Rico. It's a very expensive place to live. How do you and other teachers survive on that salary?

CINTRON: I've been receiving this pay for 10 years, of $1,750 for 10 years. There are some teachers like me. I do tutorials after school this year. And then I'm also a legislator - municipality legislator, and I get paid for that extra. And it's $75 per session. If you're married, like me, and I have two children, you have to stretch the bill - pay water, which is high. Lights is getting higher. And it's really tough. And you have to have a person that knows how to budget and manage your money. And thank God that I have my wife, that she knows how to manage the money.

FLORIDO: After teachers walked out of the classroom last week, the governor, Pedro Pierluisi, announced that the government had found money to give teachers a thousand dollar monthly raise. That's more than 50%. And yet the protests seem to only have grown since then. I get the sense this is not just about salary.

CINTRON: The governor did say that there's going to be a raise of a thousand dollars, but it's not really permanent. We also want our fair share for our retirement fund because right now there's teachers that will be losing a whole bunch of their percentage.

FLORIDO: You're referring to some pretty big changes that are coming to the teacher's retirement system starting next month. Teachers will no longer be working toward guaranteed pensions. They're going to have to start contributing to 401(k)-style plans. That change is happening as the result of a deal to get Puerto Rico out of bankruptcy. And I wonder whether you think that the government's struggles to pay you more, to guarantee pensions, whether they're understandable given Puerto Rico's economic situation.

CINTRON: It was understandable, but with the deal that the legislators made and with the governor backing, it's not helping Puerto Ricans. We're going to be paying less in that, but there still could have been way more cuts to the debt.

FLORIDO: As I mentioned, teachers have walked out of the classroom. I imagine this is imposing a real hardship for families and students. What are you hearing from them? And when will teachers return to work?

CINTRON: We've been going to work. So there are certain days that there's some teachers missing, and then there's other teachers going to the school. Today was that every - all the teachers should be out. The next day that we will be having the full strike, it would be on next Friday, the 18 of February. And I've been sending messages to the parents to let them know that we will be on strike, and the majority have been writing saying that they are 100% backing us and that they understand our fight.

FLORIDO: That's Jose Cintron, an English teacher in Puerto Rico. Mr. Cintron, thank you for joining us.

CINTRON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Adrian Florido
Adrian Florido is a national correspondent for NPR covering race and identity in America.
Alejandra Marquez Janse
Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.