State workers who have seen their wages slashed in a move to help balance the state’s fiscal crisis have launched a series of actions designed to draw attention to what they feel is a betrayal of California workers and the public.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger issued an executive order July 31st that lowered the salaries of thousands of state employees to the federal minimum wage of $6.55, a move that has been decried by labor unions and state workers who were already beginning to feel the financial strains of rising food and gasoline prices.

The governor’s decision came out of a need to maintain cash in the state’s coffers during an extended budget crunch that has garnered headlines this summer, as the State Legislature has failed to reach agreement on the budget.

“I am exercising my executive authority to avoid a full-blown crisis and keep our state moving forward,” Schwarzenegger said in a statement. “This is not an action I take lightly, but we do not have a budget, and as governor, I have a responsibility to make sure our state has enough money to pay its bills.”

The Services Employees International Union filed a lawsuit against the state on August 1st to force Schwarzenegger to rescind his order, which will affect approximately 10,000 state workers.

State offices such as the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) have seen extra-long lines as the loss of part-time workers — who have also been laid off as part of the governor’s order to deal with the crisis — has led to less available personnel to serve the public.

In Santa Monica, as in other locations across Los Angeles, members of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) staged protests the week after Schwarzenegger’s announcement.

“Since the governor signed his executive order, workers feel that the budget is being balanced on their backs,” said Ted Burnett, Service Employees International Union’s statewide DMV representative. “By signing this order, he has shown no respect at all for our workers.”

State Controller John Chiang has vowed not to enforce the governor’s order, considering it wrong and harmful.

“When I received word that Gov. Schwarzenegger was proposing to use California’s state workers as pawns in the budget battle by cutting their pay to the federal minimum wage of $6.55, I said civil servants should not bear the brunt of the budget stalemate,” the controller wrote in a letter sent out statewide on July 29th. “Forcing public servants to involuntarily loan the state cash by foregoing their hard-earned paychecks puts an untenable burden on our teachers, healthcare workers and those who provide critical public services, and that is just wrong.”

Schwarzenegger spokesman Aaron McLear said the governor expected Chiang to comply with the governor’s decree.

“We are asking the state controller to institute the governor’s executive order,” McLear told The Argonaut. “We will work with him as best we can to implement the order.”

Citing a 2003 state Supreme Court case, White v. Davis, the governor’s office says that it is entitled to invoke an action that makes certain state employees subject to having their salaries returned to the federal minimum wage levels if no budget agreement has been signed.

In that case, the court issued a decision that in conjunction with other pre-existing court orders, clarified that during a period that if there is no state budget in place, federal labor laws require the state to pay its nonexempt FLSA [Federal Labor Standards Act] employees federal minimum wage.

Chiang has insisted that the governor’s actions cannot be implemented easily. In an interview on August 4th with the Fresno Bee, the controller estimated that it would take at least six months to upgrade an archaic state computer system that could adjust the state payroll to pay its workers the minimum wage instead of their current salaries.

“Pragmatically, we just can’t get the system to work in a timely manner for us to implement payment of minimum wage,” Chiang said.

Susan Hartley, an employment attorney based in Santa Monica, took issue with Schwarzenegger’s move that has left thousands of state employees angered and in some cases laid off.

“I think that it’s disgusting that the governor is using state workers in his battle with the Legislature over the budget,” Hartley said. “I think that it’s a real cheap shot at the citizens who work hard for the state.”

Burnett agrees. “This is a slap in the face to our employees,” he said.

McLear said the governor was on solid ground when he decided to reduce state salaries to minimum wage.

“The law clearly gives the governor the authority to do this,” said McLear.

The order could also affect contract workers that the state hires to complete road improvement projects, such as the ongoing road widening of Lincoln Boulevard between Marina del Rey and Westchester.

Last year, with a looming budget deficit on the horizon, there was some concern among some of the state’s top transportation officials about how projects could be affected.

“Without a state budget, the controller’s office would be unable to release money from the state transportation account to us, and that means that we would not be able to pay our contractors who work on many of our current projects, like the one on Lincoln Boulevard,” explained Douglas Failing, the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) director for District 7, which covers Los Angeles County.

“So the lack of a state budget can have serious potential impacts to future and currently programmed Caltrans projects.”

Construction on Lincoln Boulevard was ultimately not affected, and that seems to be the case again this year, according to Tamie McGowen of the Caltrans public affairs department.

“All of our construction projects for last year’s budget are not affected, and contracts budgeted in 2008-09 will not be signed until we have a budget accord,” McGowen said.

McLear said that getting a budget signed that would help restore the state’s workers to their previous salaries is very important to Schwarzenegger.

“There is a sense of urgency on the governor’s part, and I think the Legislature’s part, to have this resolved,” he said. “The governor and the Legislature continue to meet daily in order to try to come to a reasonable resolution.”

Others who could be impacted by Schwarzenegger’s July 31st action are seniors and the disabled, whose tax relief payments may be discontinued temporarily, and students who receive Cal Grants from the California Student Aid Commission.

Hartley praised Chiang for his decision to refuse to implement Schwarzenegger’s order.

“I think that John Chiang is a real hero,” she said. “You can’t play fast and loose with the laws of the state.”

Chiang remains firm in his refusal to roll back thousands of workers’ salaries at a time when many Californians are struggling.

“Requiring a cut in pay for public employees — especially as they, like many of us, struggle with their mortgages and higher gas and food prices — will not only cause significant harm to those families, but also irreparably impact our fragile economy by further eroding consumer spending,” the controller reiterated. “It hurts us all.”

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