The state is on the verge of losing a lawsuit that aims to reclaim millions of dollars in wages withheld from furloughed employees.
A tentative ruling issued Thursday by Alameda Superior Court Judge Steven Brick agrees with two unions' claims that the state excessively furloughed thousands of rank-and-file state engineers and scientists last year.
The lawsuit brought by Professional Engineers in California Government and California Association of Professional Scientists contends their combined 13,000 members should receive back pay for two of three furlough days in March 2011.
Non-represented employees such as managers took just one furlough day that month, but legislation required rank-and-file wages be reduced "proportionately."
Brick concluded that union and nonunion workers should have lost the "same percentage" of pay to furloughs and that the state now must pay to square up the difference.
It's not yet clear how much that would cost, but the total could easily amount to several million dollars.
The unions also asked Brick to order furlough back pay for all the wages withheld from 255 scientists and engineers in two departments that deal with hazardous substances at military bases. The labor attorneys said furloughing them violated various state laws.
Brick said he was "inclined to deny" the request.
Although attorneys for each side will debate at 9 a.m. today, judges rarely reverse their tentative rulings.
The Alameda litigation is the last volley in a fight spanning more than three years and 40 lawsuits.
The courts ordered back pay for about 7,900 workers at the State Compensation Insurance Fund. Brown has settled other cases covering a few hundred state workers. None of the settlements tapped the general fund.
But for the most part, labor lost the battle when the California Supreme Court decided in 2010 that the Legislature had approved furloughs.
Brown could appeal Brick's tentative decision if it becomes final, but administration spokeswoman Lynelle Jolley wouldn't speculate.
"We won't have anything to say until after the hearing tomorrow," she said Thursday.