Court Rejection of Pr. George's Furloughs Bolsters Fights Elsewhere, Unions Say

By Jonathan Mummolo and Maria Glod
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, August 20, 2009

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 effect 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 U.S. Constitution by effectively reducing the salaries of 5,900 employees with 10-day furloughs last fiscal year. Williams said that the salaries were guaranteed under contract and that the county could have used other means to save money, including tapping its sizable 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 that the expense would result in "massive layoffs" and cuts to services.

Amid a prolonged recession, a number of county and state governments across the country have implemented, or considered, furloughs to help close budget gaps. Regardless of whether 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, lawyers 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 said his decision applies only to the specific circumstances in Prince George's, which Maryland state leaders noted Wednesday. Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) is finalizing an almost $500 million round of budget cuts expected to be voted on next week. His staff has said the belt-tightening will include more than $100 million from cuts to employee compensation, mostly in the form of 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."

But Williams also said governments should seek other means of making ends meet before forcing workers under contract to take unpaid leave.

Its 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.

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