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Unions sue to halt furloughs

Lawsuit alleges that the governor lacks the authority to mandate unpaid days off for 230,000 state workers.

December 23, 2008|Jordan Rau

SACRAMENTO — Two public employee unions on Monday sued Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to block his effort to furlough state workers in a cost-cutting measure as California's treasury runs out of money.

Last week, Schwarzenegger issued an executive order to require that all state employees take two unpaid days off each month starting in February. The governor said the measure is needed to conserve cash, with the state budget gap estimated to reach $42 billion a year and a half from now.

The lawsuit, filed in Sacramento County Superior Court, asserts that only the Legislature can alter the pay of workers who have labor contracts with the state. It asks the courts to issue a temporary stay to stop Schwarzenegger's efforts, which could affect 230,000 workers.

"We don't think he has the authority," said Bruce Blanning, executive director of Professional Engineers in California Government.

The union, which represents 13,000 engineers, surveyors and others working for the state, filed the lawsuit along with the California Assn. of Professional Scientists.

The governor has "asked for a couple of months to try to convince the Legislature to pass a bill to allow him to furlough employees," Blanning said.

Democrats declined to include such a provision in the budget plan they passed Thursday. Schwarzenegger cited the lack of such authority as one reason he planned to veto the measure.

Lynelle Jolley, a spokeswoman for the administration, said the law gives the governor extra authority to alter working conditions during emergencies. Schwarzenegger last month declared a fiscal emergency but had hoped to get the support of legislators for the furloughs, she said.

"We had the legal authority then, but . . . didn't think it necessary to exercise it," she said, explaining that the fiscal situation has since grown more dire.

Schwarzenegger attempted a few months ago to unilaterally reduce the pay of state employees, but his order never took effect. State Controller John Chiang said the state's payroll system was incapable of carrying it out. The matter eventually stalled in court.

The governor and Democratic leaders of the Senate and Assembly are scheduled to meet today in an attempt to resolve their differences. They negotiated over the weekend, and the governor said he hopes to strike a deal, possibly before Christmas.

Schwarzenegger has indicated he is willing to approve the increased gas, income and sales taxes the Democrats have proposed. But he is also demanding changes to California's environmental and labor rules to give businesses more power over their employees' hours and to allow private contractors to take a larger role in public construction projects.

Chiang underscored the state's dire financial circumstances in a letter sent today to Schwarzenegger and legislative leaders that warned the state has fewer than 70 days before it runs out of cash.

"Without action by the Legislature and the governor, we literally are weeks away from a meltdown of state government that threatens the delivery of critical public services our citizens deserve and expect," Chiang wrote.

At a news conference in Los Angeles on Monday morning, Schwarzenegger deplored the absence of a state budget and defended the furloughs as a last resort.

"I hate to lay off any state employees, may I remind you, because those are hardworking people and they all have to provide for their families," he said. "But we are running out of cash by February, so I have no other choice. California is on a track to a disaster the way it's going."

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jordan.rau@latimes.com

Times staff writer Nathan Olivarez-Giles contributed to this report.

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