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          Front Page  news  state

Unions Challenge Gov.'s Furlough Plan

By Dan Boyd
Journal Capitol Bureau
       SANTA FE — New Mexico's largest public employee union is challenging Gov. Bill Richardson's authority to set the schedule for forthcoming state worker furloughs, arguing the timetable should have been negotiated with union leaders.
    The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 18 says Richardson's administration violated the law by refusing to bargain with the union over five unpaid furlough days Richardson ordered for 17,000 state workers in December, January, March, April and May.
    "It's a fairly simple complaint," said Albuquerque attorney Shane Youtz, who is representing AFSCME and its 6,000 members. "We asked politely to bargain and were told no."
    State Personnel Director Sandi Perez said the state fulfilled its legal duties by discussing the furloughs with union leaders in November.
    The challenge filed Friday with the New Mexico Public Employees Labor Relations Board is technically known as a prohibited practice charge. The union is asking for, at the minimum, an order to bargain that would compel Perez and other state officials to reach a formal agreement on the furlough plan with union leaders, Youtz said.
    Richardson ordered the furloughs last month as one part of plan to plug a $650 million state budget deficit.
    About 80 percent of state employees will be forced to take the furlough days off, although Richardson last week granted exemptions to corrections officers who work in state prisons, State Police patrollers and dispatchers, health care providers and security staff in juvenile rehabilitation facilities.
    Public-school teachers and higher-education employees, workers in the judicial branch and employees of nonexecutive branch agencies also won't be affected by the furlough order, which is expected to reduce this year's state spending by about $8.1 million.
    The furlough schedule — which lists Dec. 24, Jan. 15, March 5, April 2 and May 28 as furlough days — is scheduled to be voted on Wednesday by the State Personnel Board.
    Youtz said AFSCME members understand the state's budget crunch but should have a spot at the bargaining table when it comes to an executive order that affects basic terms and conditions of employment.
    "It's not a situation where the union is saying the state doesn't have the legal right to furlough employees," Youtz said. "It is more, I think, an objection to process than it is to the actual furloughs."
    Leaders of AFSCME and other New Mexico public employee unions did meet with state officials on Nov. 13 to discuss the furloughs, and Richardson announced last week that he was changing one of the furlough dates after receiving numerous complaints from state employees.
    State officials point to a section of state law to bolster their claim that notifying and meeting with union leaders to discuss the furloughs was all they were legally required to do.
    The state's collective bargaining agreement prevents the state from furloughing employees for more than 80 hours over the course of a year without union agreement. The current furlough plan calls for 40 hours of unpaid time off.
    "The state has fully complied with all the requirements of the collective bargaining agreement," Perez said Monday.
    With less than two weeks remaining before Dec. 24, Youtz acknowledged it's unlikely the Public Employees Labor Relations Board will act before the first of the five scheduled furlough days.
    New Mexico isn't alone in mandating unpaid time off for state workers. At least 25 states have proposed or enacted some sort of furlough program due to revenue shortfalls, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

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