It's imperative that state employees work with state lawmakers who are struggling to fill a $2.6 billion hole in the state budget.
As legislative leaders consider furloughs, changes to sick pay cashouts, automatic pay increases and other compensation issues, it’s important that state employees recognize that they, too, must make sacrifices and be part of the budget solution. Defiance and confrontations will only drive a wedge between cash-strapped lawmakers and their work force.
Senate Democrats recently put forth a bill to close down many state agency offices one day each month to save money on salaries. Other businesses, states and government entities at the city and county level, have used furloughs as a way of saving tax dollars. Senate Democrats say their proposal might save $69 million. The Senate passed Senate Bill 6503 on a vote of 27-17 last week.
“A 5 percent reduction is a 5 percent reduction. But I think there is recognition there is going to be (job) cuts,” said Sen. Rodney Tom, D-Medina, vice chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee. “From an employee perspective, I think there is recognition that ... the last hires who tend to be (on) the lower wage scale are very dependent on a job. For them, it’s a lifesaver. They’d rather have 90 percent than zero percent. We’re trying not to add to our unemployment problem.”
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“A lot of the public has had to make similar cutbacks,” Tom said.
The furlough legislation, which is sponsored by Sen. Margarita Prentice, chairwoman of the budget-writing Ways and Means Committee, recognizes that certain functions of state government cannot absorb furlough hours. Her bill is tailored to keep college classrooms, prisons and other essential services open. Those include employees in juvenile and adult prison agencies who work around the clock, those who supervise or care for the developmentally disabled or work in state hospitals, State Patrol field and investigatory staff, hazardous-materials workers, liquor-enforcement officers and employees in state-run parks.
Under Prentice’s plan, most other workers would be laid off one day per month, although there is talk about having higher-wage workers take two days off.
Republicans say the proposal doesn’t go far enough.
Sen. Joe Zarelli, R-Ridgefield, said the Democrats’ plan misses the mark because furloughs are a temporary fix. Lawmakers should reduce the number of state employees, which saves money this budget cycle and in future years, too. Zarelli said. “The whole point is if you make a reduction in the cost of state employees, you have to make it permanent.”
Tim Welch, a spokesman for the Washington Federation of State Employees, said leaders of the largest state employee union are reviewing the furlough idea.
“I think many state employees and many legislators think there is a quid pro quo — if we cut pay, we’ll save jobs. I do not believe there is a quid pro quo in this bill. We’ll still see massive layoffs,” Welch said.
He pointed to Gov. Chris Gregoire’s supplemental budget plan that would terminate an additional 1,500 state government and higher-education workers from the payroll through June 2011. That’s on top of the 3,200 jobs lost in the budget Gregoire signed in May.
Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, a Spokane Democrat, said she wants to work with union leaders, to determine what the “least-worst options” for state employees might be.
Ideas under study, besides the forced furloughs, include wage reductions, benefit changes and elimination of so-called “step increases.”
Almost one-third of the state’s general- government workers are entitled to step increases which are earned in yearly increments, typically over their first six years in a job. Under the governor’s proposed budget, more than 21,000 state employees could get pay raises of up to 5 percent in the next year, despite cuts to everything from public schools to health care. The step increases are expected to cost the state $83 million.
It’s not as if state employees have not taken their share of hits during this recession. Federation spokesman Welch said state workers gave up $1 billion in wages and benefits when Gregoire’s budget office rejected formal pay contracts it had negotiated in 2008 with more than a dozen unions.
Sen. Brown’s hope to find the “least-worst options” makes sense. State employees and their union leaders already have made sacrifices, but the budget deficit has grown. The challenge is to maintain the strength of core services through the next few budget cycles, not just this one. The private sector continues to see reductions in hours, pay and benefits, and state workers must brace themselves for additional cuts.