MORRISTOWN, N.J. - Lawyers for six New Jersey public-worker unions argued yesterday that the state's fiscal conditions do not warrant giving state and local governments authority to break contracts and force employees to take unpaid days off work.
A three-judge appeals panel heard three hours of arguments in the battle over government-worker furloughs before deciding to recess for the day without ruling.
Lawyers for 200,000 public workers petitioned to halt an emergency rule allowing Gov. Corzine and county and municipal governments to temporarily lay off employees to help balance their budgets.
The unions asked the Morris County Superior Court appellate judges to set aside the rule declaring the state in economic peril until the legality of furloughs could be decided in court.
"The State of New Jersey is using a false claim of imminent peril to justify dismantling people's layoff rights under the statute and their contractual rights," said Hetty Rosenstein, state director of the Communications Workers of America, the largest state-worker union with 60,000 members.
Unions including the CWA, the State Policemen's Benevolent Association, and those representing firefighters and probation officers filed suit to stop the furloughs. Some also filed an unfair-labor-practices complaint with the state's Public Employees Relations Board, which has yet to be heard.
Corzine plans to furlough state workers for one day in May and another in June to help close a gap in the current budget. The first group would be furloughed May 11.
Estimates vary on how much that would save the state. The Treasury Department estimates the savings at less than $25 million; the unions say it will save only about $8 million.
The governor has said he would lay off up to 7,000 of the state's 66,000 executive branch workers if the unions did not agree to 12 additional furlough days and wage-givebacks for the fiscal year that starts July 1. The workers are due a 3.5 percent negotiated pay raise on that date.
Much of yesterday's arguments centered on whether economic conditions were severe enough to constitute "imminent peril" and whether the governor-appointed commission had seen evidence of the dire economic climate before invoking the emergency rule.
The unions also argued that the rule breached their contracts and that layoffs, especially of police officers, firefighters, probation officers, and prison guards, posed a danger to public safety.
State police and some state emergency-services workers would be exempt, but local police and fire are not necessarily immune, said Bill Lavin, president of the Firefighters' Mutual Benevolent Association.
"When the economy crashes, crime goes up, fire service is more needed," said Anthony Wieners, president of the state PBA. "Public safety is our main issue, and the safety of our officers is number-one for us."
Assistant Attorney General Robert Gilson said an economic emergency had clearly been demonstrated. The state is in the deepest financial crisis since the Depression, tax collections are down nearly $3 billion, and the governor certified the dire conditions, he said.
One potential sticking point for the state is whether the furlough plan interferes with seniority and bumping rights afforded to state workers during layoffs. The rights, which are written in law, essentially immunize workers with the most seniority against layoffs. The statute also allows a worker who gets a layoff notice to bump a worker with less seniority.
Gilson argued that those rights did not apply because the proposed furloughs constituted "a single layoff action" even in departments and agencies planning to institute rolling furloughs rather than having everyone stay home on the same day.
Judge Edwin J. Stern asked several questions about layoff rights, including what the state would do if the panel found that staggered layoffs violated state law.
There was no word on when the judges would rule.
Proposed N.J. Furlough Days
Gov. Corzine wants to force state workers to take two unpaid days off to help balance the state's budget. Here are the proposed furlough days
for various departments.
11: War Memorial
12: Welcome Centers
15: Casino Control Commission (administrative offices)*
18: Motor Vehicle Commission
22: Administrative Law; Agriculture*; Banking and Insurance; Children and Families*; Comptroller; Council on Developmental Disabilities; Election Law Enforcement Commission; Environmental Protection*; Governor's Council on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse; Governor's Office (50 percent); Health and Senior Services*; Commission on Higher Education; Higher Education Student Assistance; Human Services (administrative offices)*; Information Technology*; Inspector General; Medicaid Inspector General;
Law and Public Safety (majority)*; PERC;
Public Advocate; Public Broadcasting - NJN (majority)*; Public Defender; Board of Public Utilities*; Commission on Science and Technology; Department of State; Ethics Commission; Transportation*; Treasury*; Judiciary*.
26: Dept. of Children and Families' Office of Education; Civil Service; Community Affairs; Corrections (non-
custody)*; Education; Governor's Office
(50 percent); Homeland Security*; Military and Veterans' Affairs*;
9: Welcome Centers
11: Department of Children and Families' Office of Education
12: Banking and Insurance; Casino Control Commission (administrative offices)*; Higher Education Student Assistance; Governor's Office (50 percent).
15: Environmental Protection*; Governor's Office (50 percent); Motor Vehicle Commission; Public Broadcasting - NJN* (majority).
19: Agriculture*; Children and Families*; Comptroller; Corrections (non-custody)*; Community Affairs; Council on Developmental Disabilities; Election Law Enforcement; Health and Senior Services*; Commission on Higher Education; Human Services (administration offices)*; Information Technology*; Inspector General; Katzenbach School*; Medicaid Inspector General; PERC; State Parole Board; Department of State.
22: Military and Veterans' Affairs*; War Memorial
24: Education; Katzenbach School*
26: Civil Service; Governor's Council on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse; Homeland Security*; Board of Public Utilities*; Commission on Science and Technology; Transportation*; Treasury*.
29: Administrative Law; Law and Public Safety (majority)*; Public Advocate; Public Defender; Ethics Commission; Judiciary*
*Denotes agencies that have been approved to stagger employees in specific programs or titles to ensure continuous service delivery. The Department of
Labor will stagger all employees one day in each month between May 11 and
SOURCE: New Jersey Civil Service Commission