Judge sides with unions on mandatory furlough controversy

By Leland Kim - bio | email

HONOLULU (KHNL) -   Hawaii state workers achieved a major victory in their fight against Gov. Linda Lingle's (R-Hawaii) plan to furlough them three days a month. First Circuit Court Judge Karl Sakamoto ruled Lingle's plan is "unconstitutional."

Sakamato sided with unions, saying state employees should go through collective bargaining if their hours and/or salary are impacted. He granted the unions' motion for an injunction Thursday morning.

Sakamoto says mandatory furlough of state workers violates Article 13, Section 2.  He says the state's actions "impact wages. Collective bargaining must be negotiated."

While state workers no longer have to take unpaid days off, Thursday's ruling doesn't answer how to close the state's multi-billion dollar budget gap.

The next phase of this legal drama comes back to the Capitol.  The governor can legally lay off state employees , but she has to follow protocol if she decides to go that route.  The unions hope she meets with them face to face to find a solution together.

It was standing room only at First Circuit Court.  Lawyers for state employees faced off against Hawaii Attorney General Mark Bennett.

"For forty years, public employees and public employers have consistently negotiated in good faith numerous arguments setting forth their wages and salaries," said  Herb Takahashi, an attorney representing Hawaii State Teachers Association.

"We are facing a budget shortfall in the biennium which started yesterday of more than $700 million based on revenue receipts since May," said Bennett.

The state maintains the financial crisis constitutes an "emergency," allowing the governor to go forth with her furlough plan.

"There cannot be any serious contention by the plaintiffs that it is illegitimate because of the fiscal crisis for the governor to take this furlough step," said Bennett.

The unions disagree, saying the state still has to go through the collective bargaining process.

"The term 'fiscal emergency' does not appear in the statute," said Charlie Price, an attorney representing the Hawaii Government Employees Association.  "The legislature has defined 'emergency' elsewhere in the Hawaii revised statute as a natural disaster or a man-made disaster and has not defined it as a fiscal emergency."

Late Thursday morning, Sakamoto sided with state workers.

"Furloughs involve wages, actual wages decreasing," he said.  "Furloughs as core subject of collective bargaining must be negotiated."

"This ruling affirms our right to bargaining," said Randy Perreira, executive director of the Hawaii Government Employees Association.  "It was very important in that regard, but it doesn't solve the problem."

The governor has said in the past that she would consider layoffs if her furlough plan gets blocked.  The unions hope she sits down with them to come up with a solution.

"We have said from the very beginning that employees are willing to be part of the solution and make sacrifices," said Perreira.  "However that is achieved through the bargaining process."

Neither the governor nor the attorney general had any comments immediately following the ruling.  One question that still remains is how long will this injunction last?

The state's budget shortfall is estimated to be around $5 billion through the end of 2013.