Politics & Government

Thurston judge upholds state's unpaid furloughs

A judge ruled against the Washington Federation of State Employees today in dismissing a legal challenge to the Legislature's order for 10 unpaid furlough days over the past year.

“It seems pretty clear they have a right to do that if they want to,” assistant attorney general Janetta Sheehan said after winning the ruling.

As many as 38 percent of general-government workers, or 24,423 state workers, were affected at the peak of furloughs last October. But the number of workers affected by the Legislature's action has fallen to as few as 13,584 in March, according to the Department of Personnel.

The federation had sued last June over the constitutionality of the furlough bill and over what it saw as an impairment of a contract for 2009-11 that already had no cost-of-living pay raises and called for other worker concessions. The furloughs are expected to save $73.3 million in labor costs over the fiscal year that ends in June and was one piece needed to close a multibillion-dollar shortfall.

Judge Christine Pomeroy of Thurston County Superior Court rejected both union theories after hearing live arguments late this morning. On the constitutional question, she said the furloughs in Senate Bill 6503, which Gov. Chris Gregoire signed into law, had a sufficient basis or rational connection to the budget cuts.

Pomeroy rejected other arguments that the union’s contract for 2009-11 required an unanticipated budget shortfall before the furloughs could be imposed. Federation lawyer Ed Younglove said the state's fiscal challenge was known as far back as 2008 and that lawmakers had many other options besides furloughs.

The judge's decision hinged on contract language that put a comma between "unanticipated loss of funds" and "shortfall" – which meant each was a separate condition that could free the state's hand.

Federation spokesman Tim Welch said he did not know if the union will appeal. The same court had rejected a federation request for an injunction on the furloughs a year ago.

But the case is not over on two other fronts.

An unfair labor practice complaint is pending against Gov. Gregoire and her administration over the way the furloughs were put into place and workers were notified last year. That case is scheduled for four days of hearings before Public Employment Relations Commission starting June 2 and ending June 23. A union grievance also is pending.

Even if labor wins and PERC imposes sanctions, the state's liability may be sharply limited as a result of Pomeroy's ruling, Sheehan said.

The Superior Court case number is 10-2-01395-1.