State Workers

Monthly layoffs bill in the works

Monthly layoffs bill in the works Senate Democrats proposed a bill Friday to shut down many state agency offices one day each month to save money on salaries, following the lead of other states that have taken similar steps, and Gov. Chris Gregoire said she's interested in the idea.

The proposal might save as much as $100 million through June 2011 by temporarily laying off workers, but it sets up a fight with state employee unions, which are skeptical if not opposed. And one key Senate Republican said the proposal falls short by making temporary rather than permanent cuts in the costly state payroll.

Majority Democrats say it would cost most workers 5 percent of pay and is just one of many ideas they are exploring to fill the state’s $2.6 billion budget hole. They are looking at another freeze on pay increases for workers not under contracts, closing tax exemptions to raise revenue, possible tax increases, closing some prison units or institutions, and consolidating some state agency functions.

“A 5 percent reduction is a 5 percent reduction. But I think there is recognition there is going to be (job) cuts. 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,” Democratic Sen. Rodney Tom, the vice chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, said Friday. “They’d rather have 90 percent than zero percent. We’re trying not to add to our unemployment problem.’’

Tom said the Senate plans committee hearings on the furlough bill and other cost-cutting bills Tuesday – including a bill that extends a pay freeze for nonunion workers through June 2011.

“I think there is hunger in the public. They want government not to think it’s special. A lot of the public has had to make similar cutbacks,’’ Tom said.

The bill, which Ways and Means Chairwoman Margarita Prentice is sponsoring, exempts many workers and would be 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. It would make exceptions for liquor stores, which generate income for the state.

Most affected workers would be laid off one day per month, although there is other talk about having higher-wage workers take two days off – an approach Tom called the “Maryland model.’’

Prentice was not available to comment Friday, but Senate staff members estimate that the plan can save the state about $75 million to $100 million over the 16-month period starting with the first furlough day March 12 and one each month through June 10, 2011.

Labor unions appeared caught-off guard by the measure. Tim Welch, a spokesman for the Washington Federation of State Employees, said the federation was reviewing the 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, referring to Gregoire’s supplemental budget plan that would lop an additional 1,500 state government and higher-education workers from the payroll through June 2011.

“We’re pretty skeptical, but we can’t say yet if we’re fully opposed to it,’’ Welch added of the furloughs. It appears, he said, that some aspects of the closures would be bargained with unions.

Republican Sen. Joe Zarelli of Ridgefield said it “misses the point,” which is to make reductions in spending that go beyond June 2011 and help with the budget shortfall predicted for 2011-13.

“The whole point is if you make a reduction in the cost of state employees, you have to make it permanent,” Zarelli said.

“I think it equates to about a 5 percent pay reduction for those affected,” he added. “I’d rather see a permanent reduction in the (full-time equivalent) or head count ... and/or on the wage side.”

Gregoire is getting on board with the idea, and has talked with Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, who broached the idea two weeks ago at an Olympia forum.

“She’s interested in the concept,” Gregoire’s legislative director, Marty Brown, said of his boss. “We’ve talked to Lisa.”

“Obviously,” Marty Brown added, “we need to make sure that whatever the bill says, we can implement it. … I know the Senate is very serious.”

Top House leaders were not immediately available, but some members had mixed reactions, including Rep. Kelli Linville, the Bellingham Democrat who serves as the chairwoman of the House Ways and Means Committee. She said she needs to read the bill but thinks there could be problems negotiating reductions with unions, whose collective bargaining contracts come into play.

The state treasurer has warned that the state has a cash-flow problem, and the state general fund could run out of liquid receipts by June 30 if lawmakers don’t act soon.