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Judge rejects union attempt to undo state employee layoffs

A Maricopa County Superior Court judge has rebuffed a union’s attempt to reverse a 2009 round of state employee layoffs undertaken by three government agencies and prompted by massive budget cuts.

In a ruling released April 27, Judge Andrew Klein decided timing and the depth of the state’s budget deficit gives state administrators discretion to fire employees with little warning or severance packages for affected workers.

In February, attorneys for the Service Employees International Union filed a lawsuit alleging that the state skirted administrative protocols that require state agencies to provide employees a five-day notice before layoffs and to inform them of their right to challenge their termination.

The union, which represents 17,000 state employees, asked Klein for a preliminary injunction to stop layoffs, reinstate fired employees and to ensure that future workforce reductions comply with administrative procedures. Employees also were not allowed continued health care coverage.

However, Klein noted that state procedures allow flexibility to deal with emergencies. She said the Department of Administration, the Department of Revenue and the Department of Economic Security were hit particularly hard by a round of budget cuts in January.

“In short, an agency director must be able to determine at a certain point that economic circumstances are so dire that the only realistic way to continue operations and actually save jobs is to conduct a RIF (reduction in force) without advance notice and without offering a VSP (voluntary separation program),” the judge noted in his written opinion.

The budget cuts, enacted well into the fiscal year, made layoffs a necessity for the agencies, and further delay would have only resulted in the termination of more state employees, Klein wrote.

Klein’s ruling does not entirely terminate the SEIU legal challenge against the state’s decision to lay off approximately 1,300 employees.

In order for a preliminary injunction to succeed, a plaintiff must display they have a strong likelihood of success on the merits of their case. Klein ruled the prerequisite was not met and that the targeted agencies “did their best to make informed, good faith decisions” to maximize department savings and employee jobs.

The judge wrote that it was not a surprise that severe funding shortages left departments unable to offer severance packages based on length of employment and salary, as well as continued enrollment for health, dental and life insurance programs.

Scott Washburn, the state SEIU director, said the union has not decided what, if any, legal recourse it will take if the court dismisses the case. But he said the challenge, at the very least, has forced the state to act more deliberately when preparing to lay off employees.

“I think there was a chaotic approach to who was getting fired and when, and the speed of it was alarming,” he said.

Washburn said SEIU will expand the fight into the political arena by working to unseat Governor Jan Brewer, a Republican who was named as a defendant in the lawsuit.

Washburn said Brewer’s early-April decision to rescind former Governor Janet Napolitano’s December executive order granting public unions ‘meet and confer’ status in state agencies also has played a part in their decision to actively oppose her reelection in 2010.

“We have no confidence in her and we’re going to work fulltime to find a new governor that respects state employees and the services they provide,” he said.

Brewer spokesman Paul Senseman said the governor is committed to protecting core public services of education and public safety. She’s also focused on passing state budgets without accounting “tricks” and without long-term reliance on federal money.

He reiterated longstanding claims that the state’s severe budget problems are rooted in excessive spending during the past six years, as well as “deplorable” economic conditions. And he said voters will understand that when they decide who should be leading the state.

“Given the circumstances that all private and public sectors are dealing with right now, most will appreciate a balanced approach,” he said, adding Arizona’s per-capita budget deficit ranks among the worst in the nation.

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