State Workers

Gregoire's team, unions agree on furlough plan

Gov. Chris Gregoire's negotiators struck a tentative deal with three major state-employee unions Tuesday that would cut compensation by the equivalent of 3 percent through furloughs over the next two years.

Workers still need to ratify the agreements – probably next year. But union leaders and spokesmen said the agreements bring predictability for workers in a legislative session full of uncertainty and a nearly $5 billion shortfall still to close in the next legislative session.

“The tentative agreement we are announcing today again asks our employees to share in sacrifice,” Gregoire said at a news conference shortly after the deals were struck at 4 p.m. “I am proud to say that with this agreement, they are answering that call and doing their part to help move us through the worst budget shortfall in history that any of us has ever seen.”

Gregoire said she and other statewide elected officials also asked for similar pay cuts in a letter they sent Tuesday to the Washington Citizens’ Commission on Salaries for Elected Officials. The voter-approved commission sets salaries for lawmakers, statewide officials and judges.

The unions reaching agreement included the Washington Federation of State Employees, Service Employees International Union 1199 and Teamsters, representing about 48,000 state workers – or more than half of general government. Higher education would be exempt from the furloughs, and institutions would have to make reductions on their own, Gregoire said. The deal also would exempt workers who earn less than $30,000 a year.

Gregoire already is penciling in the $269 million savings in her two-year budget proposal that gets announced at 10:30 a.m. today, according to state budget director Marty Brown. About $176 million of the savings is in the general fund.

Gregoire said the furloughs are expected to save about 3,700 jobs that otherwise could be cut – on top of 8,200 public-sector jobs that she said were cut in the past couple of years. Gregoire said the savings is equivalent to the state’s Child Protective Services and foster care programs or the state’s early-assistance programs.

The temporary layoffs come on top of furloughs already ordered by Gregoire and lawmakers through next June. Gregoire said they would affect 90 percent of general-government state workers, which is far more than were covered by the Legislature’s furloughs last year.

The furloughs are equal to about eight days per year or 5.2 hours per month, said Washington Federation of State Employees executive director Greg Devereux.

Jonathan Rosenblum, special assistant to the leader of SEIU 1199NW, stood with Gregoire and two SEIU members, Murph Gagnon, a nurse for Adult Protective Services, and Cindy Bolster, a forensic nurse at Eastern State Hospital in Medical Lake. Workers would take the furloughs during the budget years that end in June 2012 and June 2013.

The union agreements on pay and working conditions come on the heels of the state’s recent agreements with two dozen unions that raise employees’ share of health insurance premiums to 15 percent, up from 12 percent, in 2012 and 2013. In effect, workers will pay medical inflation costs if they exceed expectations.

Gregoire said the state didn’t have money for additional benefits on top of the average $850 per month per worker that the state pays for all insurance, including health, life, and disability.

The medical and pay agreements still must be scheduled for votes by each union’s membership.

Devereux said federation members are likely to vote on the pacts early next year, because time is needed to print documents and he doesn’t want to get the vote mixed up with the holiday. He also said he thinks most members will vote for the agreement – once they know what is in it.

The $4.6 billion shortfall in the next budget is on top of the $1.1 billion deficit for the budget that runs through June 2011. Gregoire has ordered across-the-board cuts to close about $110 million of this year’s deficit, and lawmakers acted Saturday in a special session to cover $588 million more.

So more cuts are in the works – on top of the more than $4 billion lawmakers say they made in the ongoing budget cycle.

“When you see the list tomorrow of programs that have been eliminated, you will be shocked. And it will be felt all across the state,” Gregoire said.

Brad Shannon: 360-753-1688