January 17, 2013

The State Worker: Holiday fight plays out at Capitol, in court

With a measure for a new state holiday in the legislative queue, its slow-motion back story awaits action from a Sacramento court.

With a measure for a new state holiday in the legislative queue, its slow-motion back story awaits action from a Sacramento court.

Assemblyman Roger Hernández has proposed closing the state on the second Monday in October. The Native American Day suggested by the West Covina Democrat would replace what used to be Columbus Day on the state's paid holiday calendar.

If that happens, employees would regain half of what lawmakers took away from them in 2009. To cut costs, the state thinned its schedule from 13 paid holidays to 11 by axing Columbus Day and Lincoln's Birthday. Eventually, all the unions negotiated two floating days off each year that offset the lost holidays.

Hernández's bill doesn't take back either "professional development day."

State holidays carry two costs: More premium pay for 24/7 operations that can't close and lose productivity when business shuts down. The state payroll runs about $60 million on a regular workday.

The Native American Day bill will certainly get plenty of attention – it's the nature of state compensation in our company town – but a related story is quietly percolating in Sacramento's 3rd District Court of Appeal.

The case goes back to the whacked holidays. Three unions eventually argued together that their members' working terms had been violated – even though their contracts at the time had expired.

SEIU Local 1000 and unions representing state scientists and psychiatric technicians acknowledged that lawmakers and then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger had legally changed the holidays. That's why they're called "lawmakers."

They also agreed that their contracts, which expressly included the two holidays as paid time off, had expired before that.

But the Dills Act, which spells out state union contract law, says expired pacts remain in effect until new deals are negotiated.

The unions argued that Schwarzenegger had violated the law with threats to punish employees who kept their expired contracts' holiday schedule, since no new contract said otherwise. The unions won. Schwarzenegger appealed. Gov. Jerry Brown continued the fight.

There's no official estimate of what the state will owe if it loses. Safe to say it's several million dollars. We're talking more than 100,000 people owed four or five days back pay, depending on when new contracts with the floating holiday switcheroo took effect.

Chris Voight, executive director for the scientists union, said Wednesday, "We'd love to settle," but the offer has gone nowhere.

The two sides recently filed their last arguments. The appellate court could rule based on those. It's more likely to schedule a hearing first. There's no deadline, either way.

It's possible that lawmakers could decide the fate of Native American Day before the court rules on the governor's holiday appeal.

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