The largest state employees union sued Friday to block the 10-day furloughs, or temporary layoffs, that lawmakers and Gov. Chris Gregoire plan to cut payroll costs by $38 million in the state general fund.
A hearing is set for Friday in Thurston County Superior Court on an injunction request by the Washington Federation of State Employees, which represents about 40,000 state workers. The series of one-day furloughs is supposed to start July 12, affecting most state agencies and colleges.
The federation says state agencies are not providing adequate notice of who gets furloughed and who does not, complicating union efforts to bargain over the effects of the furloughs on individual workers. It also alleges that furloughs illegally impair state worker contracts and violate the Constitution’s 14th Amendment guarantee of equal protection.
“One reason we filed the action we did this week is we are not getting accurate numbers. … They are forcing furloughs on people who should be exempt,” federation spokesman Tim Welch said. “It is being jammed on employees without the ability under the law and the Constitution to adjudicate and get a fair resolution of adverse impacts.”
Whatever the union says, agencies plan to move ahead with the furloughs “unless the courts tell us otherwise,” said Glenn Kuper, a spokesman for Gregoire’s Office of Financial Management.
“We just received the lawsuit. … We are just starting to take a look at it now,” Kuper said Friday morning.
Talks with the union are scheduled for July 6-7 to go over specific effects of the layoffs and to decide, in many cases, which employees are furloughed and which might be spared.
Furlough plans vary by agency, and some agencies are virtually exempt or have employees engaged in direct public safety, public health or revenue-generating activities that are spared the pay cuts.
At the State Patrol, agency leaders are drawing lines to keep people working if they contribute to direct public-safety work on the roads, including emergency dispatchers.
Most agencies are following Gregoire’s stated preference to shut down at the same time to avoid public confusion, maximize savings on energy and other costs by having whole offices closed, and show the public that spending cuts do affect services.
Kuper said there is no exact estimate for the percentage of state workers affected by the furloughs. But it is more than the 26 percent previously estimated at the time majority Democrats in the Legislature adopted the furloughs measure in Senate Bill 6503. Besides saving about $38 million in general-fund payroll, it is expected to save an additional $35 million from other funds, according to the Office of Financial Management.
The union’s request for an injunction is aimed at freezing the furloughs until a grievance filed Tuesday by the union can be aired. The federation filed an unfair-labor-practice complaint Thursday against the state and wants that resolved, too.
Individual workers have been leery of stating publicly how they feel about the furloughs. Some have told The Olympian they prefer a furlough to seeing their job or a co-worker’s job eliminated; others question the savings and say they fear for their jobs if they speak out.
Welch said employees are adversely hit by the cuts, and one employee struggling to make ends meet wrote to the union saying she is selling her plasma for extra money to pay bills.
The lawsuit states that “the current economic climate in the state of Washington is precarious at best. Foreclosures are at an all-time high, consumer spending and confidence are down, and unemployment in the Thurston County region is pushing 10 percent. Extraordinary times call for extraordinary action and decisions.
“The implementation of ESSB 6503 will be the triggering event for the economic collapse of many families in the Thurston County area and around the state.”
State lawmakers adopted the furloughs as part of a supplemental budget plan this year that included hundreds of millions of dollars in spending reductions, federal medical aid (which is now in doubt), and almost $800 million in revenue increases.
That is on top of about $4 billion in spending reductions approved in 2009 that included a freeze on cost-of-living raises for workers and higher out-of-pocket costs for workers’ medical care (although state contributions for worker benefits went up last year and again this year).
Brad Shannon: 360-753-1688 firstname.lastname@example.org www.theolympian.com/politicsblog