By Chris Levister –
Squinting into the bright sun at the Capitol in Sacramento, Riverside residents Wesley V. Young and his wife Neika struggled to keep from cursing the Legislature and the Schwarzenegger administration.
“You can’t print what I’m thinking,” Mr. Young said sheepishly.
The Young’s along with thousands of state workers rallied outside the State Capitol Thursday in protest of the governor's proposal to temporarily slice their pay to federal minimum wage next month as legislators battle over the overdue state budget.
“Last September we lost our house then the state forced us to take furlough days. If that wasn’t enough Neika (a teacher), got pink sl ipped in March. Now ‘Arnie’ wants to slash my paycheck to minimum wage. Enough already,” said Mr. Young an education specialist and 11 year state employee.
In essence he says “we’ve been relegated to pawns of the state.”
“This is not about how well we perform or how many years we’ve been on the job. This is about political gamesmanship. He’s using us as pawns to make his point with the legislature,” said Mr. Young shouting through a megaphone.
More than 200,000 workers could be impacted under last Thursday’s executive order by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger which was upheld by a California Appeals Court Friday. The state controller, who cuts state paychecks, has refused to comply with the order.
Friday’s ruling affirms a lower-court decision in favor of the administration in a lawsuit filed two years ago after the governor’s first attempt to impose the minimum wage.
State Controller John Chiang called the governor's pay proposal "wrong." "Cutting workers' salaries will do nothing meaningful to improve our cash position or help us make our priority payment," Chiang argued.
According to the draft order, state employee pay would be cut to the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour until a budget agreement can be reached. Workers will receive full back pay once a budget is passed. In the meant ime, state employees such as Rhonda Smith say they will be hurting. They are just ending more than a year of three-day-a-month furloughs that cut their pay by 14 percent.
"It's a little scary," said Smith, 39, who joined the Department of Water Resources three weeks ago. "I've got bills, rent, insurance, a car. I like to have groceries at home. I don't know what this is going to do."
She said she believed the governor was using state workers as pawns in trying to negotiate a budget deal. "If I wanted a minimum-wage job, I wouldn't have gone to college and gotten the training. I would have gotten a job at Subway or someplace else," Smith said.
Schwarzenegger's office says the cut is needed to help reduce state expenses during the budget delay. Without a budget in place, the governor says the state could run out of money by the end of August.
"It 's outrageous," said Jim Zamora, spokesman for the largest state worker union SEIU Local 1000.
"It 's an abuse of Arnold Schwarzenegger's power. It's not our fault that the Governor and the legislature cannot come together and pass a balanced budget that will fund those services which California residents depend upon and state law requires," Zamora said.
Under the terms of the draft order, workers who would see pay cuts in their August checks would have all their missed pay returned once a budget deal is reached. The move was expected to save the state about $1 billion a month.
Schwarzenegger’s order does not affect the 37,000 workers, including California Highway Patrol officers, and 10 unions that recently negotiated new contracts with the administration. Those new contracts included pay cuts and pension reforms that will save the state money.
Many state workers reacted with shock. "I immediately called my wife and said, 'Curtail all spending, turn off the air conditioner. ' I have four kids at home," said Curtis Lews. Recall ing another recent budget crisis, Julie Perez hopes to be bailed out herself. "Last time we had this happen, my credit union gave us zero interest loans," Perez said.
At the Riverside Department of Children and Family Services, Emmett Weaver fretted about being able to pay his mortgage.
"I have four people in my family, actually five including my wife," said Weaver.
"My entire check, every dime of it, goes to my mortgage. If I don't have my check, I don't think the state of California and Governor Schwarzenegger are going to pay any penalties for me being late on my mortgage. If I face the threat of foreclosure, he's not going to take care of that. It’ll be on me."
Schwarzenegger’s order, if implemented, could cost the state billion of dollars because the action would violate employment law, legal experts say. The federal Fair Labor Standards Act entitles a worker to ‘double damages’ if an employer cuts pay to minimum wage.
Some state employees would be exempt , including doctors and attorneys, because minimum wage laws do not apply to those professions.
Under the order, they would not get paid at all until a budget deal is struck.
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