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Calif. Supreme Court upholds state worker furloughs with limits

A California Department of Motor Vehicles customer peers into the door of a closed DMV branch July 10, 2009 in Corte Madera, California. File photo.
A California Department of Motor Vehicles customer peers into the door of a closed DMV branch July 10, 2009 in Corte Madera, California. File photo.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

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The California Supreme Court ruled today that the governor lawfully furloughed state workers during last year’s budget crisis. But the decision doesn’t give California governors complete authority to order unpaid days off.

Governor Schwarzenegger’s furloughs cut state workers pay by as much as 14 percent last year.

Victoria Brown with California’s Department of Health was one of 200,000 employees who stayed home three Fridays a month without pay.

“We’re down to one car.” Brown said after the ruling. “We’re looking at problems with keeping our mortgage up. We’re fallen behind in that we’ve fallen behind in credit cards that we never even had a balance on before.”

Unions for state employees challenged the unpaid days off in dozens of lawsuits. They argued that only the legislature has the power to furlough state employees.

The California Supreme Court sided with the governor.

Schwarzenegger’s press secretary Aaron McLear says that’s because the governor’s furloughs saved billions of dollars during a fiscal crisis.

“The court said the governor’s action to cut spending and live within our means were OK.” McLear said. “So that’s certainly a victory for us.”

McLear admits it’s a limited victory.

The court sided with the governor for one main reason: the legislature eventually adopted savings from his furloughs in the budget bill. The judges reasoned that was a de-facto authorization.

But that doesn’t authorize future furloughs, like the ones the governor ordered this August. The legislature would have to approve the savings in this year’s spending plan to make those furloughs legal.

Lawmakers have yet to approve this year’s budget or even to release the details of the plan.

They say they’ll convene a hearing on the budget this Wednesday and will likely vote on it on Thursday.