ALBANY — A federal judge on Friday halted attempts by New York’s governor to impose furloughs on about 100,000 state workers and withhold their raises.
U.S. District Judge Lawrence Kahn had temporarily blocked the furloughs two weeks ago. His new preliminary injunction bars Gov. David A. Paterson and lawmakers from submitting or enacting short-term funding bills with those provisions.
The unions went to court, arguing the cost-saving moves changed the terms of their negotiated contracts in violation of the U.S. Constitution. One-day-a-week furloughs were part of one emergency spending bill approved by the Legislature, though the Senate also passed a resolution criticizing the plan. Raises have been withheld in several of the emergency bills, which are being used each week to keep the state running until a budget for the year is adopted.
New York’s budget was due April 1, but Paterson and lawmakers have been at odds trying to close a projected $9.2 billion deficit. Paterson said furloughs would save $30 million a week.
Lawyers for the Paterson administration told Judge Kahn there would be no irreparable harm since the furloughs would be used for eight weeks and the 4 percent raises would be paid out later, once a budget is enacted.
But Judge Kahn said union lawyers showed workers would be harmed by the 20 percent loss of wages from furloughs, even for a limited time, and from failure to pay raises negotiated years earlier and which workers were relying on. He said there was no such harm from the short-term lack of state payments to union benefit funds.
He said in his order Friday that he is not saying the state can’t take steps to address a fiscal crisis, but he doesn’t believe these particular measures would be upheld.
“That the state’s current financial situation is precarious … is not doubted,” Judge Kahn wrote.
He acknowledged that fiscal emergency constitutes a legitimate public interest that could warrant contract impairments, but the steps have to be both reasonable and necessary. These were not, he ruled.
“The court cannot ignore the conspicuous absence of a record showing that options were actually considered and compared, and that the conclusion was then reached that only the enacted provisions would suffice,” Judge Kahn wrote. The administration failed to show it considered alternatives that don’t require the extraordinary step of breaking contracts, he said.
Paterson said he was disappointed, noted the judge’s reference to the Senate criticism and called on lawmakers to meet with union leaders to find payroll savings that need to be part of an enacted budget.
“The state is facing severe cash flow difficulties, and I have withheld or delayed payments to schools, non-profits, contractors and others in order to prevent the state from running out of cash,” he said.
Civil Service Employees Association President Danny Donohue said he hopes Paterson “has learned that his incompetent and arrogant approach to New York’s budget crisis has been entirely counterproductive.”
He said it is time for Paterson to stop using state workers as “scapegoats.”