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State agencies close as workers go on furlough in California

By Moni Basu, CNN
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: The union says the furloughs are a way to pressure the legislature to pass a budget
  • Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger ordered employees to take three unpaid days a month
  • California faces a $19 billion budget deficit
  • One union sued, saying the governor does not have authority to furlough

(CNN) -- Jay Alan was lonely at work Friday. And a bit poorer.

Like 150,000 other state of California employees, Alan was furloughed Friday. The communications director of the California Emergency Management Agency decided to go to work anyway. He had too much to do.

"Normal business is shut down," Alan said. But he assured Californians that emergency staff was on-call and if there were to be an earthquake, fires or a terrorist threat, the agency would waste no time to act.

"It's just that paperwork isn't getting done today," he said.

Most state workers stayed home as closed signs went up on the front doors of agencies like the Department of Public Health and the Department of Motor Vehicles, where the lines at the Culver City branch normally resemble those at nearby Disneyland -- very long.

That meant that on Monday, the line for a driver's license is likely to be even longer.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger ordered the furloughs in an effort to resolve California's $19 billion budget deficit.

An executive order requires state workers to take three unpaid days off per month until a new budget is in place and the Department of Finance certifies that California has enough cash to meet its financial obligations through the end of the fiscal year. The furloughs are expected to save the state $80 million a month.

They were to have started August 1 but were temporarily blocked by a ruling in a union's legal challenge to Schwarzenegger's order. But Wednesday, the state Supreme Court allowed the furloughs to resume while the case continues.

The union, the Professional Engineers in California Government, is among several that sued on the grounds that the governor does not have the authority to furlough employees. It will urge the state Supreme Court to rule that the furloughs are illegal.

Employees are entitled to full paychecks, said Bruce Blanning, head of the 13,000-member union. The situation is especially egregious, he said, because the furloughs are mired in politics.

Blanning said the governor is using state employees to push for approval of a budget, which was supposed to have been approved by mid-June, two weeks before the new fiscal year began on July 1.

"The budget crisis very real, it's not political," Blanning said. "But the furloughs are an attempt to put pressure on the legislature to pass the budget."

This is not the first time Californians have dealt with mass furloughs. The cash-strapped state first implemented them in February 2009, demanding employees take two unpaid days off per month.

As revenues continued to plummet six months later, officials bumped the number of monthly furlough days to three. That mandate expired with the end of the fiscal year on June 30. But now, as the state's high court mulls its decision, government offices won't open three days a month.

"Here we go again," said Penny Tafoya, who has worked for the state for 38 years. The response to the order "was just kind of like incredulous laughter," she said.

"I liken it to being a good dancer," she told CNN affiliate KMAX in Sacramento. "Good dancers have to stay on the ball of their feet and be ready to move in any direction at any time."

But California's financial tango is far from ending.

In addition to furloughs, California may also have to issue IOUs in two to four weeks to keep the state solvent, according to State Controller John Chiang.

He estimated $2.2 billion in expenses -- mainly to social service agencies, vendors and schools -- will go unpaid in August. Last year, a budget crunch forced California to issue 450,000 IOUs worth $2.6 billion between July 2 and September 4.

Meanwhile, Blanning of the engineer's union said the effects of the furloughs are sure to reverberate through California. When people miss pay, they eat out less, skip movies and forgo other activities. And the bottom line, he said, is that furloughs don't save the state that much money.

For example, bridges still have to get inspected, even though state engineers are staying home, he said. So an employee will be paid time-and-a-half or a private inspector will be hired to inspect the bridges.

"It doesn't really save money," he said.

CNN's Tami Luhby and Hibah Yousuf contributed to this report.