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Playing a game of political chicken with state employee paychecks

by Bob Morris, published

On Friday, a judge ruled State Controller John Chiang can delay the temporary pay cut ordered by Gov. Schwarzenegger. Unfortunately, both sides are playing cynical political games with state workers' paychecks.

Chiang is refusing to pay anything to those appointed by the governor or legislature, while Schwarzenegger exempted from pay cuts those unions who had recently made a deal with him. Regardless of where you stand on this issue, the pay of workers should not be subject to being cut or eliminated temporarily just to score political points or for political payback.

State workers are not the reason a budget hasn’t passed. If anyone’s pay should be cut, it should be those in the legislature who still have not passed a budget even though the state constitution mandates it be passed by June 15. Instead, in a fit of irresponsibility and pique, they simply went home.

California State Controller John Chiang cited three reasons for defying Schwarzenegger’s order to cut state workers' pay.  First, the state payroll system is antiquated and can’t be re-programmed to handle such a massive change in such a short period of time. Second, Schwarzenegger’s order is vague. Third, making such a change would violate federal labor law.

The state payroll system is indeed a creaky, antiquated relic of the past. It was created in the 1950’s using COBOL, a language which once ruled but which is now a dinosaur. It is difficult finding programmers who still know COBOL. Most have retired and the language is no longer taught.  A modern payroll system, much less the creaky California system, would have trouble making hundreds of thousands of salaried workers temporarily become hourly, keeping track of what they should have made, and then rebating that full amount some weeks later (Why California still has such a fossil of a payroll system is another question).

Federal law does require that civil service employees be paid in full. Not paying them could lead to massive penalties, especially if they work overtime, which would then become temporarily unpaid.

Cal Watchdog wonders if a primary reason for Chiang’s actions is because he is beholden to labor unions, both state and private, who have donated lavishly to his campaigns for years. Might be, however the governor is as anti-union as Chiang is pro-union.

Things are dire for vendors who are owed money by California. The state isn’t paying any bills at all now, something which can and will severely impact many businesses. Plus, the impact upon hundreds of thousands of salaried state workers suddenly grossing $290 a week (40 hours * $7.25 an hour) would have had a devastating effect on the economy, especially in Sacramento, where many state workers live.

The peasants are getting restless. The Employment Development Department just issued a stern edict saying sickouts and work slowdowns are not permissive and could lead to termination. “The state issues these kinds of ‘clarifications’ when it gets a serious whiff of labor unrest. There's a pretty strong odor right now,” says the Sacramento Bee. If your paycheck suddenly became a political football, you might be feeling a bit cranky too.

The fight over whether Schwarzenegger has the authority to order pay cuts isn’t over yet. However, Chiang did win this round. The larger question is, why is it allowable that paychecks of blameless state workers can be used as bargaining chips in a game of political chicken.

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