Politics

No-One Dast Blame This Government Employee

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No, it's not Pilates, it's the DMV.

The Sacramento Bee's Jon Ortiz evokes the plight of California state workers:

Their boss routinely blasts their job security. They've endured a 15 percent cut in hours and pay, and now their employer wants them to kick in more for their benefits. The state budget situation is so bad that their next boss – whoever that is – will have to consider laying them off.

It's not exactly what Vincent Johnston envisioned when he signed up for state service.

"I took a pay cut to work for the state because of the certainty," said Johnston, a 27-year-old employee at the Board of Accountancy, who acknowledges things are no picnic in the private sector. "But now what I see is uncertainty – a lot of it."

Welcome to the human race, Vincent.

Right now, Sacramento is both haggling over a budget with a $19 billion shortfall and negotiating with public sector unions over a new contract. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is not-so-secretly using employee furloughs and other personnel tactics to lever the repeal of SB 400—a 1999 California law that boosted retirement benefits for government employees, switched to a more generous average monthly retirement compensation formula, and provided a cost of living retirement allowance increase for pre-1999 retirees. Ortiz quotes Daniel J.B. Mitchell, a retired UCLA management professor, speculating that unions are waiting for the California supreme court to rule on more than 40 furlough-related lawsuits against the governor.

Arguments in that case will be heard tomorrow, and the remaining no-contract unions—which include the Service Employees International Union and represent 163,000 public employees—are taking a risky approach to negotiations. If Jerry Brown (for whom the workers quoted by Ortiz have no kind words) surges in the fall, SEIU could leverage its own position against Schwarzenegger or just wait to sign contracts with a more friendly governor. If Meg Whitman extends her lead against Brown, the unions could be in the position of rejecting one offer from Schwarzenegger only to face a worse one from Whitman.

At that point, furloughs might no longer be an issue. Brown and Whitman both favor layoffs over furloughs during budget crunches, and Whitman promises "to permanently reduce the number of state workers back to the same level we had just five years ago."