The State Worker

Chronicling civil-service life for California state workers

December 16, 2010
Column Extra: More about Brown and furloughs

With just 400 to 450 words for our Thursday State Worker column, much of what we learn in the ramp-up to writing it never sees print. Column Extras give you some of the notes, the quotes and the observations that don't make the cut.

Our State Worker column in today's Bee notes that Gov.-elect Jerry Brown can't do much about state worker furloughs, either politically or legally.

Let's delve a bit more deeply into some of the legal possibilities. What options/arguments might Brown use to address furlough litigation? We talked to several labor attorneys about what lies ahead. Here's what they said:

1. Argue that the cases remaining in the courts are moot.
Arguing this means convincing the courts that current furlough litigation isn't worth considering because furloughs won't come up again. That's clearly not the case, since California has a history of budget deficits and governors generally look to whack state worker pay and benefits in those troubled times.

Scratch that argument.

2. End the fighting. Settle the litigation.
Our column touches briefly on why this is a difficult option, despite Brown's stated preference to settle lawsuits rather than bear the uncertainty of litigation. After all, the state could lose and wind up with a multibillion-dollar bill.

Any settlement would probably include a steeply discounted payout to state workers, a tough sell for union leaders to make to members who have endured two years of pay cuts.

There are also the political ramifications of a Democratic governor appearing to cave in to the unions. Even if settling is the morally and legally right thing to do, it would add another strain to an already hamstrung budget -- and create a huge PR liability for Brown.

Since the state is strapped, a settlement would probably include some sort of contractual agreement, like down-the-road raises or converting furlough hours into leave with cashout value. Including a settlement in a labor deal would require legislation.

3. Keep fighting. Let the litigation play out, a la Schwarzenegger
Brown could fight the unions at every turn, appealing whenever possible. The upsides: This strategy defers a big payout if the state eventually loses and avoids a payout entirely if the state wins. The downside: It would damage Brown's relationship with his base by adopting Schwarzenegger's strategy, a governor who seemed to relish fighting state employee unions.

4. Fight then fold. Don't appeal a loss.
There's no rule that says Brown has to appeal if the state loses. But that carries with it all the PR problems that go with option No. 2, and adds risk that a court could order a bigger award than if Brown simply settles.

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About The State Worker

Jon Ortiz The Author

Jon Ortiz launched The State Worker blog and a companion column in 2008 to cover state government from the perspective of California government employees. Every day he filters the news through a single question: "What does this mean for state workers?" Join Ortiz for updates and debate on state pay, benefits, pensions, contracts and jobs. Contact him at (916) 321-1043 and at jortiz@sacbee.com.

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