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Judge rules against state worker minimum wage

July 16, 2010 12:00:00 AM PDT
A Sacramento judge has blocked Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's plan to pay 200,000 state workers the federal minimum wage until a new state budget is approved."We certainly have a situation where the Controller is not complying with the law," said Sacramento County Superior Court Judge Patrick Marlette Friday.

Marlette acknowledged State Controller John Chiang is breaking the law by refusing to lower state worker paychecks to minimum wage until there's a budget, but he still ruled in Chiang's favor because he might have a point about the inability of the state's antiquated payroll system to handle the changes.

"As to where we are today, we are in impossible country. It's not as if we can throw a huge amount of resources and a huge amount of money and come into compliance," said Steven Rosenthal, attorney for the controller's office.

The state's payroll system is programmed in COBOL language and was last revamped in 1970. Chiang's office estimates it would take as many as 69,000 hours and $5 million to $11 million to lower paychecks, then bring them back to full wages, once a budget is passed.

The governor's office sought an immediate order to lower paychecks to $7.25 per hour, because payroll goes to print next week.

"We think an injunction is critical. This is our only recourse," said Christopher Thomas, attorney for the Calif. Dept. of Personnel Administration.

Outside the courthouse, relief, at least temporarily. About 200,000 state workers will get their full paychecks for at least July and August.

"In all of being caught in the middle of this trap of legislative politics, we're finally being recognized as being the taxpaying everyday citizens that we are for the state," said state worker Miguel Cordova.

While Schwarzenegger did not get his injunction, he will get another opportunity in late August, when the same judge will hear the full lawsuit against Chiang. That's why some state workers are cautious about this victory.

"Everybody shouldn't get too excited about this because what's coming down the pike is not going to be pretty," said state worker Claudia Gambaro.

Of course, all this is moot if lawmakers could just pass a state budget. It's now about two and a half weeks late. The state is also upgrading the payroll system. In a couple years, it will be able to handle large-scale pay cuts to minimum wage.


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