CA Supreme Court hears furlough debate

September 8, 2010 7:43:17 PM PDT
The California Supreme Court heard arguments on Wednesday in a fight over furloughs. At issue is the question: does the governor have the authority to order more than a 100,000 state employees to stay home three Fridays a month without pay?

Those state workers are certainly anxious to see those furloughs end, but the state Supreme Court justices wonder whether its logical for governors to have layoff authority but not furlough power.

"We have no money," says DMV worker Lorena Santisteban.

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," says Santisteban.

The state Supreme Court is weighing whether the unpaid furloughs are legal during a budget crisis. Labor attorneys say no power exists for a governor to be able to impose furloughs.

"It cites layoffs, but doesn't cite any comparable authority to impose a furlough unilaterally," says SEIU attorney Anne Giese.

But in 2009, the state was dangerously running out of cash. The governor's lawyers argue that constitutes an emergency, giving the executive office extraordinary powers. The furloughs saved the state $3 billion.

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

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 layoffs for tens of thousands?" says California Supreme Court Justice Ming Chin.

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

"The furloughs bypass all those protections. They take effect immediately and they apply to everybody across the board. So they are far more drastic than layoffs, which are at least statutorily authorized. Furloughs aren't," says state worker attorney Patrick Whalen.

State workers like Santisteban hope the justices end their nightmare.

"I'll be relieved if it goes in our favor," says 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 working its way through the lower courts, and it could reshape state labor relations for years to come.


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