Judge tells Schwarzenegger to end state worker furloughs

An Alameda Superior Court judge has ordered the Schwarzenegger administration to stop furloughing thousands of state workers who are members of three big public sector unions, including Service Employees International Union Local 1000, offering them a huge legal victory as 2010 begins.

In a trio of rulings released late Thursday, Judge Frank Roesch said the governor's reliance on the state's Emergency Services Act to order three furlough days a month, triggering pays cuts of almost 15 percent, was flawed and illegal.

The judge was silent on the issue of back pay. Union lawyers said they'll seek it.

SEIU attorney Felix De La Torre said he and the 95,000 members of his powerful statewide union were pleased and "grateful" for the ruling.

"I couldn't think of a better way for our union and its members to ring in 2010 after being under siege by the Schwarzenegger administration for over a year," De La Torre said.

Schwarzenegger Press Secretary Aaron McLear said the administration will appeal, and furloughs will continue until the cases are resolved.

"In these tough economic times, there's no reason that state workers should be shielded from the same economic realities the rest of the state is facing," McLear said.

"This is three of 24 lawsuits on the furlough issue - we've won some, we've lost some. Ultimately, it's going to be decided in the California Supreme Court," he added.

Attorneys for two of the unions said they'll ask Roesch to lift the automatic stay of proceedings that occurs when an appeal is filed and try to get workers' full pay reinstated immediately.

The lawyers argue that unionized state workers are suffering irreparable hardship and financial harm because of the pay cuts, with some workers losing their homes and having credit records destroyed.

The rulings came as a political setback for the governor on the last day of an already difficult year, as his administration tries to steer the state through a severe recession and budget crisis.

In the three cases, Roesch ruled in favor of three unions challenging the legality of the governor's furloughs: SEIU Local 1000; the 3,500-member California Attorneys, Administrative Law Judges, and Hearing Officers in State Employment, also known as CASE; and the Union of American Physicians and Dentists.

Roesch said the Schwarzenegger administration had argued that the emergency necessitating furloughs was the Legislature's failure to pass a budget, yet furloughs continued after it was passed.

Roesch also said furloughs have "interfered with the objectives" of several key agencies supported by special funds instead of state general fund revenues, causing delays at the Department of Motor Vehicles and in Social Security disability reviews.

"When employee positions are funded entirely by non-borrowable special funds or federal funds - as is the case for many of the agencies at issue here - the general fund savings justification for furloughs does not survive scrutiny," Roesch wrote.

The Schwarzenegger administration also had argued that it was furloughing all state workers - regardless of whether state, federal or special funds paid their salaries - because it would be unfair to hand pay cuts to some state employees, but not others.

Spreading the pain of pay cuts across the state work force was not "rationally related to any government purpose," the judge wrote.

"When the only justification underpinning the furlough of these employees that remains is 'labor parity,' the court cannot do otherwise than to conclude that respondents (in the administration) have abused their discretion."

He suggested parity was a fiction anyway because public safety officers and firefighters are exempted, while other agencies with key public safety roles, such as the Department of Health Care Services, were not.

Patrick Whalen, a Sacramento attorney for CASE, said the judge may agree to restore state workers' pay while the cases wind through the higher courts, as happened in a lawsuit involving State Compensation Insurance Fund workers in 2009.

"I would think that if the judge believes the furloughs are illegal, which he apparently does if you read the judgment, we would think he will lift the stay and stop the hardship immediately," he added.

Adam Zapala, a Bay Area attorney for the physicians and dentists' union, said he's "delighted," saying the rulings were a New Year's Eve gift.

Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, said in a statement that the rulings send Schwarzenegger a "clear directive" to negotiate with state employees to "develop a rational labor agreement."