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Cal Supreme Court considers furlough legality

September 8, 2010 12:00:00 AM PDT
Thousands of state workers had their eyes glued to the TV Wednesday. The California Supreme Court heard oral arguments whether the governor has the authority to furlough state employees to save money.Two-hundred-thousand state workers are anxious for an end to three-day-per-month furloughs. The California Supreme Court justices must decide if it's logical for governors to have layoff authority but not furlough power.

DMV worker Lorena Santisteban knows how painful the state furloughs have been.

The single mom saw nearly 15 percent of her pay, plus overtime, evaporate. That's $1,500 less a month for almost 18 months, beginning in early 2009.

"We can't go out to dinner. We can't do movies. We can't do anything," said Santisteban.

The California Supreme Court is weighing whether the unpaid furloughs are legal during a budget crisis.

Labor attorneys say no power exists for a governor to impose furloughs.

"It cites layoffs, but does not cite any comparable authority to impose furloughs unilaterally," said Anne Giese, lead attorney for Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 1000.

But in 2009, the state was dangerously running out of cash.

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's lawyers argue that constitutes an emergency, giving the executive office extraordinary powers.

The furloughs saved the state $3 billion.

"There was collective need on the part of the constituent agencies and departments to preserve cash," said David Tyra, Schwarzenegger's attorney.

Labor acknowledged the governor has many tools to deal with a fiscal emergency, such as layoffs, hiring freezes and renegotiating contracts, but they say furloughs are not one of them. The justices questioned that argument.

"Are you really arguing that furloughs are not less drastic than laying off tens of thousands?" asked Calif. Supreme Court Assoc. Justice Ming Chin.

Outside the courtroom, union lawyers said layoffs, at least, have worker protections, like advance notice and seniority.

"The furloughs bypass all of those protections. They take effect immediately and they apply to everybody across the board," said Patrick Whalen, attorney for California Attorneys, Administrative Law Judges, and Hearing Officers in State Employment (CASE). "So they're far more drastic than layoffs, which are at least statutorily authorized. Furloughs aren't."

State workers like Santisteban hope the justices end their nightmare.

"I'll be relieved if it goes in our favor," said Santisteban. "I can pay my bills with $1,500 and put food on my table."

The court has 90 days to rule, but there's a feeling it will rule sooner.

The decision will impact more than 30 other furlough lawsuits pending in the lower courts, and it could reshape state labor relations for years to come.


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