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'Massive' state worker layoffs threatened

State workers risk "massive" layoffs later this year if their unions don't agree to concessions to help the state erase its deficit, the Paterson administration warned Tuesday.

The threat comes as unionized state workers are set to see their pay go up by 4 percent Thursday, the start of the new fiscal year -- creating an additional $400 million in payroll costs this year -- under the terms of a contract negotiated by then-Gov. Eliot L. Spitzer.

At a time when public- and private-sector unions across the country have agreed to pay freezes or cuts, the big public employees unions for state workers are refusing to go along with efforts to cut what Gov. David A. Paterson proposed as $250 million in work force savings this year, officials said.

"It's just frustrating that they won't even agree to the slightest bit of inconvenience," said a Paterson administration official with knowledge of the talks between the state and its two largest unions -- the Civil Service Employees Association and the Public Employees Federation. "I think they're disconnected from the real world," said the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Paterson last year agreed to a no-layoff deal with CSEA and PEF in return for their support of a bill creating a new pension plan -- with higher employee costs -- for future government hires. But that deal ends Dec. 31, an aide to the governor said, and CSEA and PEF members could face layoff notices and stricter limits on benefits such as overtime pay.

"Their contracts expire next April. I think they'll have very little public support behind them when the public realizes that when the opportunity came, the unions thumbed their noses at taxpayers and said, 'OK, you suffer, I'm not,' " the Paterson official said.

Union officials sharply dismissed such assertions and said they have offered ways for the state to cut spending, including the hiring of lower-paid state workers to replace consultants and providing the names of workers willing to take part in a $20,000 state buyout offer to leave the payroll.

"This seems to be another measure of this administration's incompetence and learning disability. They don't even seem to know what negotiations are," said Steve Madarasz, a CSEA spokesman. He said Paterson has been talking up the same ideas for nearly two years, and won't budge on ideas suggested by the union.

"I don't think they know what they're doing at this point," added Darcy Wells, a PEF spokeswoman. "Management 101 is, you don't threaten your employees, the people working hard every day trying to make the administration look good, as if such a thing at this point were possible."

The unions last year ignored a call by Paterson for a state worker pay freeze and to defer five days' pay until the worker left the payroll. Unions, the source said, would go along with a five-day pay lag plan, but only if workers could get two additional days' pay when they quit or retired.

The Paterson administration source said the unions recently sought to reopen talks on the contract that expires in April 2011. The official said the unions wanted to extend a contract now for an additional four years to be able to lock in the terms before a new governor takes office Jan. 1. Paterson is not running this year.

"We flatly rejected that idea. We said we're not going to tie the next governor's hands," the Paterson aide said. "They are scared to death the next governor coming in will still have fiscal problems and will ask the unions for significant givebacks. So they wanted to lock in for another four years to avoid that."

Wells denied any such move on PEF's part, and Madarasz called the claim a "gross mischaracterization" of negotiations.

"They have said no to being any part of the solution to close a $9.2 billion deficit," the administration official said of the unions.

Unions aren't the only ones criticizing Paterson's plans for the work force. A week ago, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, D-Manhattan, criticized both the governor's $250 million proposal and one by the Senate Democrats for $450 million in "work force savings;" neither Paterson nor the Senate, Silver said, gave any explanation of how such savings would be realized.

A Paterson official said that it will be difficult to achieve even the $250 million because the unions won't negotiate. That, the official said, will mean $250 million must be gotten from other areas of the budget.

"Every idea they have offered is basically a plan for the state to hire more state workers, which means raising more union dues," the official said.

But Wells, the PEF spokeswoman, said the state has ignored most of the 1,000 names it provided of workers willing to take a severance package to leave the payroll. She said PEF offered a $33 million overtime savings plan, which would include hiring more workers, but at a lower pay than giving overtime to higher-paid workers.

The Paterson administration's hands are tied. Unless it breaks a deal it made with CSEA and PEF for the pension bill, it can't force layoffs. And the existing contracts forbid any pay freeze or salary deferral without union approval.

The Paterson official said that the administration may have to offer an early retirement incentive to reduce the payroll this year but that only about 500 people took the last offer. "People may be afraid to leave their jobs in this economy," the official said.

The official said that reducing the work force through attrition is an option but that nearly three-quarters of the payroll is at agencies running prisons and facilities for mental health and mental disabilities -- departments that need to fill jobs to continue critical services.
Of the talks with unions, the official reiterated, "They've basically thumbed their noses at us."


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