Senator Velega says ASPA bonuses are an insult
Sen. Velega Savali Jr. did not mince his words when he told ASPA officials, at yesterday's Senate ASPA/TEO Committee meeting that it's an "insult" to people trying to make ends meet and paying increased utility rates, while the American Samoa Power Authority (ASPA) paid out more than $50,000 in bonuses to certain employees.
The Senate ASPA/TEO Committee hearing on Wednesday was regarding several ASPA issues - including the bonuses - which have been criticized by many people in the community.
ASPA board chairman Asaua Fuimaono told senators that the bonuses, an incentive program, are cited in the American Samoa Administrative Code and the board authorized bonuses "for exceptional working performance" by certain employees.
In a statement last month about the bonuses, ASPA said an Incentive Awards Committee was established in accordance with the ASPA Personnel Rules (in accordance with the Administrative Code) and the board directed the management team to properly administer these bonuses as a means of rewarding employees for their hard work.
While it's true that the incentive program is cited in the Administrative Code, Velega told ASPA officials, there are questions being asked by lawmakers, such as - where the funding came from to pay the bonuses, the total amount allocated for these bonuses, how many people received this incentive and the total amount that was paid?
ASPA chief financial officer Susana Fai'ivae explained that funding for bonuses is included in the FY 2012 budget under "Personnel" costs column. She said ASPA allocates about $100,000 annually for the incentive program.
She also said that ASPA did pay out bonuses for calendar year 2008 and 2009 but in 2010, this was not done, due to the fact that the authority was faced with serious issues to address following the Sept. 2009 earthquake and tsunami.
For calendar year 2011, a total of $53,800 was paid out in bonuses for 66 employees, said Fai'ivae, adding that ASPA has a little over 400 employees.
Velega said he fully understands the goal and purpose of this incentive program, which is also cited in the ASPA operating manual, but he said the "timing is wrong" for the fact that rate payers are already faced with high utility costs.
"It's an insult to the person trying to survive" while ASPA paid its workers bonuses, Velega told ASPA officials and questioned the wisdom of implementing the program at a time when ASPA customers are forced to pay a new round of rate hikes. "It's an insult."
He said an employee's "honesty" and "honest work" is not paid by money, but with blessings from Heaven.
Fuimaono responded that ASPA personnel are different than other people in the local workforce, adding that ASPA personnel work "hard, and over and above" the work they are required to perform. He said this was especially true after the 2009 disaster.
The ASPA board chairman acknowledged that the community is faced with some difficult times, but said the board still wanted to reward "exceptional" employees for the excellent work they performed.
He also pointed out that after the earthquake and tsunami, ASPA management took a 5% pay cut, some of them even higher, which resulted in many complaints at the time, but it was necessary as the authority was faced with financial difficulties after the disaster.
According to Fuimaono, the bonuses this year were necessary and reminded senators that no bonuses were paid out last year.
"Asaua that's your belief... since you're the chairman," said Velega, "but for the rest of my life - it's an insult."
Velega also said that even if the bonuses are written in the ASPA operational manual it should not be paid out during difficult financial times for the community - unless it's written in the Bible.
He told Fuimaono that the community is crying out for help "so continue with your bonuses and let the public suffer".
Asaua reiterated that there were no bonuses paid out in 2010 and the board reviewed the bonus issue followed by the decision of approving the payment of bonuses this year, which is also something that would improve the morale of ASPA workers, as well as improve ASPA service. He reminded senators that it was a very small amount that went to fund the bonuses this year; less than 1% of the ASPA budget.
Sen. Fonoti T. Aufata told ASPA officials that she was very surprised to hear about these bonuses being paid out at a time when there are a lot of members of the community facing financial woes and paying high rates. She said that maybe it would have been appropriated, if the bonuses were made at another time, but not now.
She also said that she is sure that other ASPA employees are complaining because they didn't get any bonus, despite their good work performance.
There were complaints to Samoa News, including one through a letter to the editor, which stated that some ASPA employees were looking forward to getting cash bonuses from the time of the tsunami and the employees were excited because the "bonuses would bring a... sense of appreciation for all the hard work and long hours that these ASPA employees put in at the time of this disaster that they still have not been compensated for."
"Unfortunately, after waiting several pay periods for these cash bonuses to show up on their paychecks, these employees were informed that they [ASPA] had made an error and that only ‘recommended individuals' would receive these bonuses," according to the letter writer, who has inside knowledge of those who received bonuses.
"There are ASPA employees that worked around the clock at the time of this disaster, who left their families even on the day of the tsunami, to heed the call for assistance around the island. Now, you tell me, who deserves this money?" the letter stated in part.
Samoa News will report on other issues from the ASPA hearing in Thursday and Friday editions.