HARRISBURG - Thousands of state workers were notified yesterday that they could be furloughed immediately if there is no budget deal by the June 30 deadline, ratcheting up pressure on Gov. Rendell and the legislature to reach a timely agreement.
Naomi Wyatt, secretary of administration, said that without a budget in place, state officials by law have no option but to furlough as many as 25,000 workers whose jobs are deemed "non-critical," or open the possibility of hefty federal fines.
An additional 53,000 workers are considered critical to the health, safety and welfare of citizens, and would continue to work and be paid. The remaining workers' salaries come from funds that are not part of the budget appropriation.
"Last year we took a huge risk working people after the first of July. . . . We have deemed the risk is too great," Wyatt told reporters at a briefing in the Capitol.
Some Republican lawmakers say they do not believe there is any legal basis for furloughing workers and suggest that the Rendell administration is using the workers as pawns in the event of a budget impasse.
"This is very simple to deal with. You make all employees essential, and therefore you pay them," said Sen. Jeffrey Piccola (R., Dauphin), who sponsored a bill that would designate all 85,000 state workers as critical and thus not subject to furlough.
Wyatt rejected any notion that furloughs were being used as leverage in the budget process.
"It's really a disgrace to say the governor or anybody in administration wants any employee to be furloughed," said Wyatt. "This is not a game."
State law prohibits the treasurer from making payments without a budget appropriation in place. The federal Fair Labor Standards Act says employees covered under the act must be paid if they work or the state could be fined - in the case of Pennsylvania up to $3.5 million a day, the equivalent of the daily payroll for those workers.
Unconvinced, Piccola, chairman of the Senate State Government Committee, has asked Wyatt and other witnesses, including union lawyers representing government workers, to testify before his committee on Tuesday.
Piccola says he wants Wyatt to explain why all workers cannot be designated as critical.
No budget has been passed on time since Rendell took office in 2003.
A budget impasse last year that dragged on beyond the first week of July prompted Rendell to furlough 24,000 state workers for one day. Rendell also closed state parks and Pennsylvania Department of Transportation offices among other government agencies and facilities. The furloughed workers were later paid. But Wyatt says there is no guarantee that workers would be paid this year.
This week, Rendell said he would have to furlough workers earlier because of changes in federal law, but Wyatt said he had misspoken.