The state Senate should back off its ill-conceived plan to force high-wage state employees to take additional furlough days. The plan may violate the labor agreement signed by Gov. Chris Gregoire and approved by a vote of union members.
Unpaid furloughs have been part of state employees’ lives since the economy slipped into a deep recession. State workers have taken 10 days off work without pay since last July.
In her collective bargaining negotiations with union members for the 2011-13 contract, Gregoire insisted on a 3 percent pay cut collected through another round of furloughs. Union members understood the need to share in the sacrifice to balance the state budget.
The memorandum of understanding on furloughs that is part of the union contract agrees that state employees will take an additional 15.6 furlough days over the two-year course of the budget, according to Tim Welch, spokesman for the Washington Federation of State Employees. Those furlough days are expected to save the state about $330 million.
Welch said the labor contract, ratified by union members, spreads the pain and includes everyone who makes more than $30,000 a year.
That’s why the Senate proposal to add additional furlough days for 53,000 higher-paid state workers is a violation of the contract, Welch said.
In the bipartisan budget that passed the Senate in the last week of the regular session, Ways and Means Chairman Sen. Ed Murray, D-Seattle, included:
• Two additional furlough days for those earning $50,000 to $75,000 annually.
• Four additional furlough days for those earning $75,000 to $100,000 annually.
• Six additional furlough days for those earning $100,000 to $125,000 annually.
• Eight additional furlough days for those earning more than $125,000.
The additional furloughs affect about 40,000 workers in the $50,000-$75,000 range, half of them represented by unions and half unrepresented. Smaller numbers would be affected in the higher-income brackets — such as 1,000 nonrepresented workers earning more than $125,000.
Murray’s additional furlough days add up to a savings of $61.9 million in all state funds over two years.
“It really is unfair. It hits some folks harder than others,” Welch said. “That is why we agreed to the contract; it is fair, and everyone takes the same sacrifice.”
But Murray said his intent was not to harm contracts but to make sure greater concessions were not forced on state workers such as additional layoffs.
We understand Murray’s predicament. With a narrow working majority of Democrats in the Senate, Murray needed to write a budget that would pass muster with conservative Democrats to keep them from jumping ranks and siding with enough Republicans to wrest control of the budget away from Murray.
But the union members raise a legitimate issue on whether the additional furlough days for high-wage earners breaks the contract.
Marty Brown, state budget director, raised that issue in a critical, six-page letter of concerns he sent Murray and Republican budget co-author Sen. Joseph Zarelli, R-Ridgefield.
Brown wrote that the extra furloughs “are applied unevenly to state agencies and may conflict with collective bargaining agreements. We are unclear if the intent is to reject the negotiated agreements or not.” He went on to say that basing the layoffs on salary will “adversely affect agency operations. Temporarily laid off staff include revenue officers, teachers at state institutions, toxicologists and chemists at state laboratories, wildlife enforcement officers, and physicians.”
Murray said the goal of additional furloughs was to save the contracts from maneuvers that could reopen negotiations with labor unions.
It’s clear that the state work force is going to shrink. In her budget proposal, Gregoire counted on 1,000 fewer state employees. The Senate plan cuts about 1,529 full-time positions at state agencies and colleges through June 2013. The House budget calls for more than 800 fewer state employees.
State employees are shouldering their share of pain, through higher insurance premiums, wage reductions through unpaid furloughs, and tackling increased workload with fewer state employees.
That’s why budget negotiators should reject the Senate’s plan for additional furlough days and leave the negotiated labor agreements in place.