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Lawsuit filed against agencies for merit pay

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by Mindy Aguon

Guam - While there's been news in recent weeks of bonuses being given to employees of select government agencies, a class action lawsuit was filed in the Superior Court today representing the best government workers.  The workers, who have received superior performance ratings, are asking a judge to order the government to pay them what is mandated by law.

Alleging the government has failed to follow the law for nearly two decades, a class action lawsuit was filed today against the directors of the Department of Administration and all of the autonomous agencies in the government.  Marylou Gogo is one of hundreds of government employees entitled to what's known as the Meritorious Bonus Award. 

Gogo's attorney, Mike Phillips, said, "Under this program, any employee who receives an outstanding rating upon review is automatically entitled to the bonus, 3.5% of that year's base salary."  The law was introduced 19 years ago by then-senator Carl Gutierrez and states that upon a superior rating evaluation, the Merit Bonus would be automatic.

But since the law was passed almost two decades prior, government agencies and each administration has failed year after year to comply with the mandate.  Said Phillips, "This case is very similar to the COLA case where the government says, 'Yeah, we know there's a law, but we don't think it's a good one and we can't afford it, so we won't follow the law'. That's the situation we find ourselves in here."

The lawsuit is asking a Superior Court judge to command the executive branch to follow the law and provide the merit bonuses to the employees who received superior reviews.  While several agencies and their directors recently received special achievement bonuses, Attorney Phillips says the major difference is that those bonuses are discretionary while the 3.5% merit bonuses are mandated by law.

"Both me and my clients don't begrudge others that are receiving bonuses," he explained.  "It's not in reaction to that or in competition at all.  It's just that this act has not been followed and it's time the Executive Branch complies with the law."

There's even a Superior Court case wherein a Guam Waterworks Authority employee, Gregorio Quichocho, went to court to receive the Merit Bonus and the judge ordered the agency to pay the bonus for fiscal years 1995 and 1996.  "The Executive Branch chooses not to follow the law, even with the court case and even with the attorney general's opinion," Phillips continued.

DOA contends budget laws over the years have frozen the bonuses - in 1996, 1997, and from 2002-2004 - the same time the author of the bill was governor.  The bonuses were restored in 2005 but still haven't been paid out.  It's estimated the government owes upwards of $8 million to hundreds of public sector staffers who have relied on the assurances of their directors for years, but their delay in taking the matter to court could limit the number of years they'll actually receive compensation.

"We feel very secure we can go back at least three years, although we believe that because of the behavior of the government there's at the very least a moral obligation to the employees who have been very, very patient to compensate them from the date of the enactment, which was late 1991," the attorney noted.

Meanwhile, Rose Cruz with the Department of Administration says it's incumbent upon the individual departments to provide the agency with a request for personnel action for the Merit bonuses. Additionally, she adds that even though there have been superior ratings given at the agency, the law hasn't been implemented because of a lack of funding.

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