A judge refused Monday to stop further state layoffs. Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Andrew Klein said he heard nothing during the hearing to entitle the Service Employees International Union to an immediate restraining order against the state. In fact, the judge questioned arguments by union lawyers that the state was not following its own “reduction in force” rules.
Klein agreed with the contention of Gene Mechanic, the lead attorney for SEIU, that the state personnel rules generally require a five-day notice to affected workers.
But the judge also pointed out those rules specifically say that notice applies “if circumstances warrant.” And the judge said the state’s $1.6 billion deficit would appear to give sufficient reason to conclude that the advance notice is inappropriate.
Similarly, the judge said regulations that require the state to have a separation plan, complete with severance pay for affected workers, also say that is contingent on the availability of funding.
Monday’s decision is not the last word: Klein agreed to give union officials a chance to argue their case — but not until next month. That, however, is likely to come after all state agencies have completed their layoff plans.
But the judge suggested that even if he eventually concludes state officials are legally entitled to fire workers without notice, that doesn’t mean they are being fair to workers.
“You might want to explain why you can’t give them more notice,” he told Assistant Attorney General Dennis Carpenter. “I just think that’s the right thing to do. How you do it is up to you.”
The lawsuit, filed Friday, came as state agencies have either fired or announced plans to lay off close to 1,200 workers.
Many of those are “covered,” employees, meaning they are subject to the protections of state personnel rules about hiring and firing, as compared to “uncovered” employees — normally managers and upper-level workers — who have no rights and can be fired at any time.
The union, arguing that the rights of covered state employees were being violated, sought a temporary restraining order to block further layoffs. They also want those who already were let go to get their jobs back.
Klein said he was sympathetic — to both sides.
“This is a very sad case for everybody,” the judge said. “We all know people, good people, upstanding people who have been laid off.”
But Klein also said the state has to be able to keep operating.
Mechanic acknowledged the budget crunch and the fact the personnel rules appear to have “gray areas” that may give state officials a lot of latitude in deciding how to lay off workers and how much notice to give. But the attorney said that doesn’t mean the layoffs were legal.
“It’s unconstitutional for the state to terminate permanent-status employees without giving them some advance notice and some hearing,” Mechanic said. “If a financial crisis is going to allow the state to ignore constitutional standards, those constitutional standards are meaningless.”
Carpenter said there was a good reason that workers weren’t given more notice: The quicker people are taken off the payroll, the fewer of those who remain need to be let go to save the amount of money needed.
Senate President Bob Burns, R-Peoria, said it is possible that not everything done was proper.
“We’re in uncharted territory,” he said of the budget. “There’s probably the possibility that there might be some mistakes made along the way. If there are, we’ll probably have to make some adjustments.”
Union organizer Gail Gaeler said the refusal of the judge to halt layoffs now and instead postpone action until March 19 is not a defeat.
“The lawsuit has got the state’s attention,” she said. Gaeler said she also hopes that state agencies will “pursue other alternatives” to further layoffs.
She said that includes furloughs, in which state workers are forced to take unpaid time off. But Gaeler said agencies doing layoffs also are doing furloughs, with the officials at each one saying the unpaid vacation does not save enough money.