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Pa. says it may furlough workers

Rendell asked state unions to forgo 2009 raises and said he may seek unpaid days off to close budget gap.

HARRISBURG - The Rendell administration has told unions representing tens of thousands of state workers that the governor wants them to forgo their 2009 raise and may order furloughs to cope with the widening budget gap.

In a meeting this week with the three unions representing most of the state's 78,000 workers, top administration officials said there could be "rolling furloughs" within 30 days.

A spokesman for Gov. Rendell said that the administration gave the unions 30 days' notice as required by contract but that layoffs were not imminent.

"This is a notice of the possibility of furloughs, not an indication of any decision having been made," said Rendell spokesman Chuck Ardo.

Rendell's proposal comes as governors of some cash-strapped states - including New Jersey, Ohio, California, Colorado and Maryland - are considering furloughing workers.

Under the rolling furlough proposal, departments would close for a day or several days, and employees would not be paid for that time, said Ardo. He said it was too early to say where the furloughs would be or for how long.

Union officials rejected the administration's demands, saying they want state officials to look at all other options before targeting workers to help plug the estimated $2.3 billion budget shortfall this year.

"We are not missing the point that these are tough times, but when it's business as usual in the rest of government, that's not fair," said David Fillman, executive director of the largest government workers union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which represents 45,000 workers. "This is premature and a scare tactic."

Administration officials asked unions for other concessions, including agreeing to cancel a 2.25 percent raise that began this month and a 3 percent raise effective July 1.

The administration also wants to reduce the Pennsylvania Employees Benefit Trust Fund's reserve from $244 million to $50 million.

Fillman said such a move was "very dangerous" because it would cut too deeply into reserves that are needed at times when health-care demand grows.

Kathy Jellison, president of Service Employees International Union 668, which represents 10,000 state workers, said Rendell was not "bargaining in good faith" when he made public on Tuesday his intention to reduce the size of the workforce before consulting the unions.

Rendell told a Pittsburgh radio station that he was seeking to trim from 1,000 to 2,000 state jobs through layoffs and attrition.

In a letter to members, Jellison said union workers had made sacrifices in the past in the interest of balancing the budget, including agreeing to a 21/2-year wage freeze and paying for health-care benefits.

The third union involved is Local 1776 of the United Food and Commercial Workers, which represents 3,000 employees of state liquor stores.

In 2007, one-third of state workers were furloughed for one day because of a budget impasse, but when it was resolved, the employees received their wages.