A New Jersey appeals court panel has upheld the authority of state and local governments to force employees to take unpaid days off from work but raised questions about how the Corzine administration wants to schedule them.
In a unanimous decision issued Friday afternoon, the three-judge panel upheld an emergency ruling by the state Civil Service Commission declaring that the state was in "economic peril."
That finding was a requirement for the rule authorizing furloughs of government workers between now and June 30.
However, the appeals court said it has reservations about the way the Corzine administration wants to do the furloughs, allowing departments to order some of their employees to take off different days to minimize disruption of services. The court said that part of the plan needs to be reviewed by the state's Public Employment Relations Commission.
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Hetty Rosenstein, director of the Communications Workers of America, the largest state worker union, called on Gov. Jon S. Corzine to come up with a plan that is "more fair" and to continue negotiations with the unions.
"Go back to the drawing board," said Rosenstein. "Don't do something unilaterally and in a sloppy way without thinking things through."
Six unions, including the CWA -- with 60,000 members statewide -- the State Policemen's Benevolent Association and those representing firefighters and probation officers had filed suit challenging the furloughs.
Some of the unions also filed an unfair labor practices complaint with PERC, which has yet to be heard.
Bill Lavin, president of the state Firefighters Mutual Benevolent Association, which represents municipal firefighters and is one of the unions involved in the suit, said he was disappointed that the court found government workers could be furloughed.
However, he was relieved that the staggered furloughs provision was not immediately approved. "We're pleased overall with how (the ruling) affects us," Lavin said.
In a statement issued Friday night, Corzine praised the decision.
"I am pleased the court agreed that furloughs can be used as a cost-savings alternative to permanent layoffs. The court has affirmed that the national economic crisis has created imminent peril for state finances," the governor said. "This ruling is in concert with my commitment to closing New Jersey's budget gap without putting thousands of state employees out of work and onto the unemployment lines."
Corzine has said he plans to furlough state workers for a day in May and another in June to help close a gap in the current budget.
Estimates vary on how much that would save the state. The treasury department estimates the savings at less than $25 million; the unions say it will save only about $8 million.
The governor has said he would lay off up to 9,000 of the state's 66,000 executive branch workers if the unions do not agree to 12 additional furlough days and wage givebacks for the fiscal year that starts July 1. The workers are due a 3.5 percent negotiated pay raise on that date.