State workers laud repeal of furloughs

State employee union leaders are getting behind a court ruling earlier this week that ended mandatory furlough days and said workers should be paid for the ones they’ve already taken.

Among them is a Hearst Castle tour guide — a member of a statewide bargaining panel — who hopes that her union can win back money cut from their paychecks during California’s budget crisis.

Karen Harris — a member of the Service Employees International Union and its statewide bargaining committee — said they’ll press on despite an appeal filed Friday by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger of Judge Frank Roesch’s order to end furlough days for some state workers and issue back pay for that time.

“The union is going to try and get the money back immediately, hopefully with interest,” Harris said.

Starting in February 2009, the furlough days denied 53,000 state workers from 68 departments two days of work each month. And then in July, Schwarzenegger added a third furlough day each month, reducing their monthly pay about 15 percent.

Roesch declared the furlough days illegal in a ruling issued Thursday because they were ordered upon workers whose salaries come from special funds and not the general fund, which is the source of California’s budget shortfall.

If Roesch’s decision is upheld on appeal, San Luis Obispo County state workers from agencies such as Caltrans, Atascadero State Hospital, California Men’s Colony and Hearst Castle would be paid for the days they were not allowed to work. That’s expected to cost about $1 billion statewide.

Harris said she does not believe California can afford to pay back the state workers, but she added that because of the furlough days, local state workers were unable to go on vacation or pay their car registrations, and some lost their homes.

A negative attitude toward state workers has developed in California, according to Harris.

“People call us lazy and say that we should be happy we still have jobs, but the fact is that what Schwarz-enegger did is illegal,” she said.

Harris is concerned that a similar attitude toward state workers has developed in states across the country.

“Everyone knows that what happens in California happens in the rest of the country,” she said. “If the union wins this money back for its workers, hopefully it will help union workers across the United States.”

The Sacramento Bee contributed to this story.