Labor Groups Applaud Ruling Against Furloughs

But Prince George's Decision May Have Limited Impact

August 20, 2009|By Jonathan Mummolo and Maria Glod | Jonathan Mummolo and Maria Glod,The Washington Post

Union leaders said Wednesday that a federal judge's ruling that furloughs in Prince George's County were unconstitutional bolsters their fight against similar measures by cash-strapped governments elsewhere.

But labor law experts said it is unclear what impact the ruling will have outside Prince George's, given the narrow focus of the decision and the county's plan to appeal.

The ruling by U.S. District Judge Alexander Williams Jr. found that Prince George's violated the contract clause of the Constitution by effectively reducing the salaries of 5,900 employees with 10-day furloughs last fiscal year. Williams said the salaries were guaranteed under contract, and that the county could have used other means to save money, including tapping its reserve fund, which Prince George's officials said would be financially irresponsible.

Williams ordered the county to repay employees the money saved by the furloughs, estimated by county officials at $17 million. A county spokesman said Tuesday the expense would result in "massive layoffs" and cuts to services.

In the midst of a prolonged recession, a number of county and state governments across the nation have implemented - or at least considered - furloughs as a way to help close budget gaps. Whether or not it withstands appeal, experts said Tuesday's ruling will be embraced by labor groups as a model for combating the measures.

"Virtually every union in the country is probably already well aware of this decision," said Jeffrey Hirsch, an associate professor at the University of Tennessee College of Law who specializes in labor law. "You better believe they are going to wave this around." Unions stand the best chance of successfully citing the ruling in Maryland, attorneys said, given the court district in which the ruling was made. However, if the ruling is upheld, it would affect the entire Fourth Circuit, which includes Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina.

In his 43-page opinion, Williams cautioned that his decision applies only to the specific circumstances in Prince George's County - something Maryland state leaders noted Wednesday. They face the possibility of a half-billion dollar round of budget cuts that may lead to furloughs.

"We feel pretty confident that any future state furloughs would stand up for scrutiny," said Shanetta Paskel, a spokeswoman for Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler. "The judge didn't say he was ruling on furloughs in general."

In the Baltimore region, Harford and Howard county governments are asking workers to take unpaid leave, as is the Anne Arundel County school district.

But Williams also stressed that governments should seek other means of making ends meet before forcing furloughs on workers under contract.

Its ultimate legal fate aside, the ruling energized union heads looking for ways to evade the carving knives of budget shapers. A large union that is battling state-imposed furloughs in California said the case provides a potential "angle of attack."

"Our attorneys are reviewing this decision to see how it applies to Gov. [Arnold] Schwarzenegger's malicious furlough of state employees," said Jim Zamora, spokesman for Service Employees International Union Local 1000.

At a national convention for Fraternal Orders of Police in Long Beach, Calif., Vince Canales, president of the Prince George's chapter which was a plaintiff in the suit, said he was mobbed by other union heads who were excited over the ruling and hoped it could aid in their local battles.

Union leaders are "definitely sitting back and looking at this decision," Canales said. "They know it may not directly affect their issues, but they're looking for some guidance."

The decision could still be overturned, some legal experts said. The contract clause is infrequently cited in these types of labor cases, and modern readings of it have afforded governments more leeway in certain situations, said Paul Secunda, associate professor of law at Marquette University Law School.

"It hasn't been interpreted that broadly, at least in the modern era," Secunda said. "More recently ... the Supreme Court has made clear that the contract clause doesn't obliterate the police power of the state. The state can take necessary action in order to respond to a public situation, a public crisis, in this case, the recession."

Unions in Prince George's continue to seek an injunction to halt a second round of the 10-day furloughs approved by the County Council last month. In the wake of the ruling, unions have asked for an expedited hearing on that matter. John Erzen, a spokesman for County Executive Jack B. Johnson, said the court's ruling does not affect the furlough plan for the current fiscal year.

Washington Post staff writer Aaron C. Davis contributed to this article.

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