The State Worker

Chronicling civil-service life for California state workers

July 12, 2012
Column Extra Part 1: Inside the legal argument against California state worker furloughs

Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for 100602 yolo county gavel.jpgWith just 400 to 450 words for our weekly State Worker column, much of what we learn each week never sees print. Column Extras give you some of the notes, the quotes and the observations that inform what's published each Thursday.

Our column in today's fiber/cyber Bee notes that for the first time since furloughs became a regular feature in state budgets three years ago, the government has imposed them on employees who are under contract.

Although Gov. Jerry Brown negotiated furloughs with 19 of the 21 bargaining units representing state workers, two haven't gone along: Professional Engineers in California Government (Unit 9) and International Union of Operating Engineers (Unit 13).

The governor has used authority bestowed on him by the Legislature to impose a one-day-per-month furlough on the holdouts. Now the questions are whether the either union will sue and what the basis of a lawsuit might be.

Let's dispense with the first question and assume a lawsuit is filed. PECG would do it, arguing that furloughs violate this provision in its contract:

Unless otherwise specified herein, the regular work week of full-time Unit 9 employees
shall be forty (40) hours.

Many other bargaining units' memoranda of understanding contain similar language, including SEIU Local 1000 contracts. But remember, all the other units that negotiated a furlough side-letter agreement have forfeited the option to sue.

So what if PECG won? Well, that would establish a new boundary on the Legislature's authority to set employee's wages. Conventional thinking has been that since the Legislature appropriates the money for payroll that it has the final word on setting state workers' pay -- including a reduction via furloughs it authorizes the governor to implement.

For PECG to win it would have to successfully argue that the authority to appropriate funding doesn't mean lawmakers can authorize an illegal means of distributing those funds. The state already has the power to cut payroll costs when employees are under contract: layoffs. Furloughs, PECG could argue, violate the 40-hour workweek clause in its contract -- and not even the Legislature can violate state and federal constitutional contract protections.

Later today we'll post the second part of this week's Column Extra and examine how the state might counter PECG's contractual-violation argument.

IMAGE: www.yolocourts.ca.gov

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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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