Jon Ortiz

The State Worker: Back pay for furlough days not worked raises fairness issues

Published: Thursday, May. 3, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 3A
Last Modified: Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2013 - 8:13 pm

Government policies can be like raising kids: They test your sense of what's fair.

Take the news this week that California's paycheck-writer-in-chief, state Controller John Chiang, is close to having the information he needs to issue back pay to several hundred state workers who lost wages to furloughs.

The money eventually will go to between 1,500 and 2,000 current and former employees in five departments: the Prison Industry Authority, First 5 California, the California Earthquake Authority, the California Housing Finance Agency and the California State Lottery.

Chiang's office doesn't yet know what that will cost, but Prison Industry Authority officials have figured their piece of the furlough pay-back pie is about $7.9 million. Double that and you're probably still well under the final figure.

This raises questions:

So what makes the workers in those five departments so special?

California has about 190,000 state workers under the governor's authority. Most were furloughed between February 2009 and April 2011, some up to 70 days.

An appellate court questioned whether lawmakers' furlough authority extends to workers in those five departments because the Legislature doesn't appropriate their money.

Unions could have pressed the case, but that would have taken months or years. They dropped all their furlough litigation in exchange for back pay for their members in those five departments, which decided to extend the deal to all their employees to be fair.

Won't this deepen the state's budget deficit?

No. The five departments don't receive any money from the state's general fund, which is the pot of tax money that comes up short year after year.

Four operate on earnings from the sales of goods and services or investment returns. First 5 funds children's programs with tobacco tax revenues.

Isn't this paying state workers for nothing?

It is. And that strikes people like Aaron McLear, whose job as press secretary to former GOP Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger included defending furloughs, as incredibly wrong.

"Outrageous that state workers are getting paid for time they didn't work," said McLear, who is now a Republican strategist.

He also thinks the furlough settlement might give opponents to Gov. Jerry Brown's tax hike measure a little extra ammo. You know, Democratic-governor-snuggles-up-to-the-unions fodder.

The Brown administration has said settling the lawsuits cleaned up a legal mess. Continuing would only add to the $2 million spent on furlough litigation so far, and expose the state to the risk that it might lose.

Paying state workers in those five departments for not working seems wrong, but they didn't ask to stay home. They were locked out part time, possibly illegally.

That's not fair, either.

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