SACRAMENTO — California officials must immediately implement Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's order that state employees take two days off without pay each month, a judge ruled Thursday, denying claims by unions and the controller that the governor's directive is illegal.
The decision clears the way for the biggest rollback of the state payroll in decades. Starting next week, 238,000 state employees will be furloughed on the first and third Fridays of each month. Some state offices that provide public services, including DMV field offices, will be closed on those days.
The judge's order, if it withstands an appeal promised by organized labor, would represent a shift in power over the civil service workforce. Past attempts by governors to cut salaries and hours have generally been stymied by the courts or the Legislature.
"This state is in a huge mess . . . the scope of which is unprecedented," Sacramento County Superior Court Judge Patrick Marlette said in a courtroom packed with government workers. His ruling called the governor's order "reasonable and necessary under the circumstances."
He acknowledged that his decision could have "devastating" financial consequences for some workers, but said state law and union contracts provide the governor with the authority to cut the payroll during an emergency.
The state is in the midst of a financial crisis, with an immediate cash shortage and a projected deficit of nearly $42 billion by the middle of next year. Refunds to taxpayers and other payments will be suspended Feb. 1 because the state does not have the money for them.
State Controller John Chiang, a longtime ally of organized labor whose job is to manage the state payroll, said he would put into effect the pay cuts that will result from the furloughs.
"Today, the court has directed me to implement the governor's order affecting state employee pay, and I will immediately move to do so," he said in a statement.
The mandatory time off will apply to almost all state workers except those employed in public universities, on state tax boards, in the Legislature and in other offices not under the control of the governor.
Engineers, scientists, nurses, Department of Motor Vehicles clerks, pharmacists, Caltrans maintenance workers, dietitians, psychologists, social workers, computer programmers, unemployment caseworkers, full-time state commissioners and attorneys not working for the state attorney general will all be affected.
Prison guards and park rangers will be permitted to schedule their days off without pay in a way that does not compromise public safety. California Highway Patrol officers, who have a contract specifically prohibiting furloughs, will be exempt.
Union leaders said the furloughs will drain the finances of workers and disrupt the Californians they serve. The union officials are drafting court papers that they hope will stop the mandatory time off from taking effect until the appeal is complete.
"We think [Marlette] is wrong. The governor does not have this authority," said Bruce Blanning, executive director of the Professional Engineers in California Government. "One man is telling 200,000 people to stay home: 'Don't go to work.' "
The unions had argued that furloughs must be approved by the Legislature. Chiang agreed and sided in court with the Service Employees International Union Local 1000, the California Assn. of Professional Scientists and the engineers.
The governor wants the furloughs to remain in place even if he and lawmakers reach a budget agreement that addresses the deficit. The equivalent of a 9% pay cut, the move will save the state about $1.3 billion through June 30, 2010, officials said.
State employees who packed the courthouse Thursday were angered by the judge's ruling.
David Miller, a toxin-control scientist, is newly married and helping to put his wife through college. "We will have to reduce our expenditures, tighten our belts," he said. His wife "may have to reduce her [course] schedule," he said. ". . . It's a real bite."
Dianne Bradford of San Diego, who does nursing-home inspections, said in a telephone interview that she is "seriously considering getting a second job."
Bradford, 56, said the $600 a month that she will lose will make it tough for her to pay for her car and mortgage. "I'm not sure how I'm going to manage," she said.
Schwarzenegger said earlier this week that he was imposing the furloughs as an alternative to mass layoffs.
State law gives him the authority to lay off workers, but the process for doing so is onerous. Most experts agree it would be many months before the state recognized significant savings that way.
It is not just state workers who will be affected by the furloughs. The state is expected to shut down some services on the days workers are required to be off. State personnel officials are working with unions to determine what offices will have to close.
At the state's six unemployment-insurance call centers, where the phones have been ringing with calls from the soaring number of jobless Californians, operators will not be there to answer on two Fridays each month.
Most state-operated One-Stop Career Centers, which provide job information and related services to the unemployed, will also be closed then, said Loree Levy, a spokeswoman for the Employment Development Department.
In addition to the DMV closures, the California Department of Transportation has said all of its offices will close on the two Fridays.
Marlette said his ruling is in no way meant to endorse the governor's cost-cutting strategy.
"My job is not to rule if this is the right solution but whether his action is authorized by law," he said.
Times staff writer Marc Lifsher contributed to this report.