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Judge Halts Furloughs for State Workers

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NEW YORK - MARCH 08: New York Governor David Paterson sits during a town hall meeting at Borough Hall March 8, 2010 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City.

A federal judge has issued a temporary restraining order preventing New York Governor David Paterson from imposing furloughs on about 100,000 state workers.

U.S. District Judge Lawrence Kahn, in his order Wednesday, said that unions representing state workers have shown that a permanent 20 percent loss in wages would constitute irreparable harm. The judge has scheduled a hearing for May 26.

Unions representing state workers had filed lawsuits yesterday to block the governor from imposing the one-day-a-week furloughs, which had been slated to begin next week.

Public Employees Federation Vice President Patricia Baker says the governor doesn't have the authority to issue furloughs. "We are not insensitive to the plight of this state, but at the same time we have a contract that's legal and binding and the governor has chosen to ignore that," she says. The Public Employees Federation represents about 60,000 social workers, parole officers and nurses who work for the state.

Ken O'Brien, president of the SUNY Faculty Senate, says the furloughs will hit the most junior teachers, many of whom live paycheck to paycheck. "For them to become sort of hostages to a political budget crisis seems to me, on a fundamental level, to be ridiculous," O'Brien says.

Still, some fiscal responsibility watchdogs are saying the furlough plan is a good idea. Lise Bang-Jensen of the Manhattan Institute says public employees should chip in to help the state out of its fiscal crisis. "I think a lot of public employees are living in a bubble. They don't realize what the private sector is going through. People who have been laid off, they've been furloughed, they've had their health insurance cut, and public employees, for the most part, have been unaffected by the recession," Bang-Jensen says.

New York's governor says he feels for state workers, but he says they're not alone. "I feel badly for the school districts that are losing money," Paterson says. "I feel bad for the nursing homes and the hospitals. I feel bad for the people in the private sector. But the reality is we're all in a recession. All we were asking is for the union to take their fair share."

Governor Paterson on Wednesday also responded to union accusations that he was being hypocritical by giving some of his staff raises even as he tries to furlough state workers. The governor rescinded the pay increases this morning. Four of the five staffers who had been given raises are in Paterson's press office, where several top aides have recently resigned.

A spokesman for Governor Paterson says that, even with the promotions, executive chamber salaries are down 20 percent and press office salaries are down more than $300,000 since July 2008. The governor says the staffers deserved the increases, which were between 9 percent and 29 percent, because they've taken on added duties, including one woman who volunteered to work late the night the car bomb was discovered in Times Square. "We gave her a modest $5,000 compensation for her efforts, and we're going to take it away," Paterson says. "It's not right, but we're going to do it so we can help everyone back to the real issues that this state is going to run out of money at the end of May."

The governor says everyone should be focused on closing the state's $9 billion budget gap. He has asked state workers to forego their contractual 4.5 percent raises to help bridge the state's deficit. Unions have refused that and other concessions. If put into effect, the furloughs are expected to save New York state about $30 million a week.