New York City can’t afford to pay a lump sum due its teachers because of the new coronavirus, city officials said Thursday, reflecting a fiscal crisis that has already led to budget cuts and service reductions.

The city teachers union, which puts the amount due this month at $900 million, called Thursday for immediate arbitration.

First Deputy Mayor Dean Fuleihan sent the union a letter saying the budget impact of the pandemic was “debilitating and not yet fully known,” and the city couldn’t afford to pay a lump sum due to active and retired teachers scheduled for this month under a 2014 agreement.

“It is the City’s desire to avoid the necessity for layoffs, and to make a retroactive payment at this time would therefore be fiscally irresponsible,” Mr. Fuleihan’s letter said.

The dispute comes during a hectic and tense back-to-school season. In August, the union threatened to strike if the city didn’t meet its standards for making schools safe, prompting a delay in reopening. Many teachers have expressed frustration with a reopening that has been full of confusion over class schedules, job assignments and insufficient technology for children studying online from home.

“We’re in for another fight,” Michael Mulgrew, United Federation of Teachers president, told members Thursday night in a video message.

The pandemic has brought on the worst fiscal crisis in the city since the 1970s. It faces a $9 billion deficit over the next two years. Dwindling tax revenue forced Mayor Bill de Blasio and the New York City Council to reduce or eliminate services in the city budget they approved in June.

To cut costs, the mayor has mandated weeklong furloughs for about 9,000 government workers. He also has warned that he will have to lay off 22,000 employees if state lawmakers don’t give the city the authority to borrow billions of dollars.

When Mr. de Blasio took office in 2014, he agreed to give teachers raises they had long sought but he said the city couldn’t pay the money all at once. The UFT signed a new contract in 2018 that incorporated lump-sum retroactive payments.

A letter from the union’s general counsel, Beth Norton, seeking arbitration said the anticipated final payment, due Oct. 1, would cost the city some $900 million. She said the UFT understood the city’s fiscal challenges but members “have already worked for and been waiting for these payments for a decade.”

Union officials said the amount due to an individual teacher varies from a few hundred dollars to thousands, depending on salary level and time in service.

The UFT represents about 120,000 city Department of Education employees.

“This action is necessary to avoid painful layoffs, but make no mistake, New York City recognizes our teachers go above and beyond for our students and schools every day,” said mayoral spokesman Bill Neidhardt.

City Hall officials said they agreed to arbitration and were working on scheduling it.

Patrick Sprinkle, a UFT chapter leader who teaches at NYC Lab School for Collaborative Studies, said the delay was unfortunate, but “If we can avert layoffs and save middle-class jobs, I will gladly make another sacrifice in these unprecedented times.”

Write to Leslie Brody at [email protected]

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Appeared in the October 9, 2020, print edition as ‘City Won’t Give Teachers Back Pay, Cites Budget Shock.’

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