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SEIU sues over state layoffs

Local 1000 argues that the governor ignored protocol in his order, which has started to affect some services.

August 02, 2008|Michael Rothfeld and Susannah Rosenblatt | Times Staff Writers

SACRAMENTO — A workers union sued the state Friday in an effort to reverse more than 10,000 layoffs ordered by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, as criticism of the decision mounted and Californians began to feel the effect on government services.

The lawsuit, filed in Sacramento County Superior Court by Local 1000 of the Service Employees International Union, was one of at least three actions employees took in the wake of the governor's Thursday order, which Schwarzenegger said he issued to save money until he and state lawmakers were able to negotiate a budget.

SEIU and another union, the California Attorneys, Administrative Law Judges and Hearing Officers in State Employment, each filed a complaint -- called an unfair labor practice charge -- with the state's Public Employment Relations Board.

They hope to block the governor's move to temporarily reduce the salaries of most of the state's 200,000 employees to the federal minimum wage of $6.55 an hour. The workers would be repaid once a budget is in place.

Union workers protested angrily in front of the state Capitol behind a huge mock-up of a pink slip addressed to Schwarzenegger, who was in Los Angeles, according to his aides.

"The governor promised California when he was running for this job that he was the leader that could work with the Legislature to get responsible budgets for California," Yvonne Walker, the SEIU president, told her members, a few of whom yelled, "Liar!"

"Well, the governor has failed," Walker continued. "And we are here to say, 'Gov. Schwarzenegger, you are terminated.' "

Celeste Knox, 39, lost her job as an office assistant at the Department of Consumer Affairs just after closing on her house near Sacramento. Knox, a single mother, said it was hard telling her sons, 14 and 12, that she'd been dismissed.

"I needed this job to continue to do my part in being their mother, to provide them with the security that they need," she said at the rally. "It hurts me to my heart to have to tell my sons this."

Aaron McLear, the governor's spokesman, said Schwarzenegger "understands how difficult this is going to be for state workers."

Schwarzenegger -- who also suspended some state contracts, froze hiring and restricted overtime -- said his measures were needed to ensure that the state maintains enough cash to operate through September, because a budget still has not been signed more than a month into the fiscal year. State Controller John Chiang has told the governor he does not intend to implement the pay cuts.

Because of layoffs, customers endured longer lines at some Department of Motor Vehicles offices. The agency dismissed 700 employees statewide -- nearly 8% of its workforce -- which is "putting a strain" on the rest, DMV Director George Valverde said. "It's a day-by-day situation, so we'll try to manage," he said.

The layoffs took a toll at many, but not all, of the 169 field offices statewide. In Fullerton, the wait was more than two hours Friday afternoon, while in Glendale it was 29 minutes, Valverde said. He urged customers to use the DMV website for their transactions if possible.

At the Westminster office, employees provided crowd control for the 80 or so people -- senior citizens with walkers, mothers with strollers and screaming kids -- who snaked across the sunbaked sidewalk in front of the building. A blue plastic chair was the only seating. A security guard and a manager counted people off in groups of 25 every few minutes to enter the office.

"I knew when they start cutting jobs you're going to get poor service," said Renee Todd, 45, of Cypress, who came to make a title switch, change a name and renew her vehicle registration. She had been waiting 45 minutes. She'd already been turned away from the Long Beach DMV, which was accepting only customers with appointments.

"I was hoping they'd give me a chair," said Bud Uhrich, 47, of Aliso Viejo, who was there to get his motorcycle license. "But they didn't."

Schwarzenegger scheduled a budget meeting for Sunday with Republican and Democratic leaders in the Assembly and state Senate. Democratic legislators, however, continued to criticize his plan, with Sen. Dean Florez (D-Shafter) preparing to hold a hearing Monday on the governor's order.

Confusion pervaded some state agencies about who would be affected by the pay cuts. J. Clark Kelso, the court-appointed receiver for healthcare in state prisons, announced that he was exempting 60,000 employees at the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation -- almost the entire agency -- but when the governor's office protested, he said he was willing to discuss the matter with corrections Secretary Matthew Cate.

The lawsuit and two labor complaints contend that the governor cannot take action against workers unilaterally. The SEIU argues in its suit that the governor illegally ignored a process for layoffs set up by the Legislature and the state Department of Personnel Administration. The process includes appeals for terminated employees.

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