6/7/08

State weighs furlough to save union-dues flow

AFSCME stuck in the middle

Pennsylvania government workers were warned Friday that thousands will be sent home without pay at the end of the month if state budget talks deadlock. Naomi Wyatt, Gov. Ed Rendell's secretary of administration, told state employees that if the governor and Legislature have not agreed on a new state budget by midnight on June 30, furloughs will begin immediately.

Budget season furlough warnings are not unusual _ and a one-day furlough did occur last year _ but this marks the first time the governor has threatened to partially shut down the government the moment the budget year concludes.

"We remain hopeful that we will not have to implement our impasse contingency plans, but we need to be prepared," Wyatt said in an e-mail that most state workers received Friday morning.

If a furlough is ordered, state troopers, prison guards, liquor store clerks and casino regulators would continue to work and be paid.

But many services would be curtailed or suspended. State parks would close down, driver's license centers would be shuttered and environmental permits would no longer be issued.

Last year's furlough did not occur until July 9, but Wyatt said allowing noncritical workers to stay on the job past June 30 risks a fine and $3.5 million in daily damages under the Federal Fair Labor Standards Act.

A furlough would idle about 25,000 people, or more than a quarter of the state work force. Wyatt said their health coverage would continue.

In a separate letter Friday, Wyatt directed agency heads to double-check the list of who will be laid off and who will continue working. Workers will learn next week whether they might be furloughed, but the final list will not be announced until closer to the deadline.

"I don't think this is a win for anybody," she told reporters late Friday. "I think this is a horrible situation."

The head of a union that represents about 17,000 targeted workers said it objects to how the administration decides which positions are not "critical" enough to the public's health, safety and welfare to avoid being furloughed.

"If they have a budget impasse, that's an issue between the governor and the Legislature," said David R. Fillman, executive director of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 13. "My members should not be stuck in the middle (of) something that has nothing to do with them."

Steve Miskin, a spokesman for House Minority Leader Sam Smith, R-Jefferson, said the House was more than two weeks away from considering more than 160 amendments to the budget proposal.

"It's one more year of the Rendell Doctrine: create a crisis, instill fear," Miskin said.

Many in the Capitol are pessimistic that a budget will be signed in time to avert the furloughs. Rendell, a Democrat, has offered a $28.3 billion spending plan that would be a 4.2 percent increase over the current year.

Republican opponents insist the proposed growth is too large, and the list of unresolved issues includes legislation regarding energy, economic development, infrastructure and health care.

Also, Rendell may face difficulty selling the General Assembly on his plan to shift a greater share of public school funding to needy school districts.

After last year's budget deadlock, which ended with a massive deal on transportation, including the introduction of tolls along Interstate 80, Rendell did not sign a budget until July 17. Workers were later paid for their single day off the job.

During a 34-day impasse in 1991, when state workers' paychecks were deferred, they protested at the Capitol.

(timesleader.com)

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