Lawyer Says State Pay Freeze is an Option

Labor attorney questions legality of governor’s furlough proposal

Albany Times Union Online
By RICK KARLIN, Capitol bureau
First published in print: Tuesday, May 4, 2010
ALBANY — A top labor lawyer said he believes that Gov. David Paterson’s proposal to furlough state employees likely would be illegal.

But Terry O’Neil, who represents school districts and municipalities in negotiating union contracts, said the Legislature could, if it wanted, declare a “state of emergency” and freeze all public sector salaries on a temporary basis.

“You can tell people to stay home one day but you can’t cut their pay,” said O’Neil, referring to Paterson’s remarks last month that he might order one-day-a-week unpaid furloughs for the state work force if lawmakers can’t complete a 2010-11 budget by the end of this week.

The governor has already withheld a 4 percent raise for the state’s major unions, which they contend is a violation of their contracts.

Paterson on Monday said he’s still mulling furloughs, which he could include in next week’s “extender” budget bill to keep the government functioning in lieu of a completed 2010-11 budget.

“We haven’t made a final decision; we wouldn’t rule it out,” said Paterson.

The governor has been sending weekly extender bills to the Legislature since April 1, when the full budget was due, and he raised the issue of furloughs last week.

While furloughs could face legal obstacles, an across-the-board public sector pay freeze would be legal, maintained O’Neil, who was hired by the fiscally conservative Empire Center for New York State Policy to explore that possibility.

The Center has previously raised that option, arguing that the state is approaching the kind of financial crisis that New York City went through in the 1970s, or which the cities of Buffalo and Yonkers endured more recently, prompting the imposition of control boards and municipal pay freezes.

“The courts have said if there is a finding of a financial emergency we’re going to support this,” said O’Neil.

The concept, though, was quickly condemned by union leaders and it remained doubtful that lawmakers would go for it.

“This is just more of their same nonsense and it’s really a blatant attack on working people,” said Stephen Madarasz, spokesman for the Civil Service Employees Association, which represents about 250,000 workers, both state and local.

Madarasz noted that O’Neil’s firm, Bond, Schoeneck & King, is known for representing employers over unions.

As envisioned by O’Neil and the Empire Center, such a freeze would cut across the state’s vast public sector, including municipal workers and teachers as well as state employees.

That would undoubtedly anger New York’s powerful and deep-pocketed unions ranging from CSEA to the Public Employees Federation and New York State United Teachers.

“Ain’t gonna happen,” said Douglas Muzzio, a Baruch College political science professor. “It’s like asking them all to commit mass suicide,” Muzzio said when asked if he thought lawmakers would vote for a public sector pay freeze.

“Voters are anxious and fearful and angry. But when unions are mad at you, you’re going to face a $10 million ad campaign.”

“Albany is increasingly walking a balancing act. At some point, the money vanishes,” added Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion.

But, he added, “legislators are probably going to be hard-pressed to annoy them (public sector unions).”

O’Neil noted that a handful of lawmakers have broached the issue. Four Democratic Assembly members — Sandra Galef, Sam Hoyt, Ginny Fields and Michael Benjamin — have suggested that teachers voluntarily give up their raises, which could avert layoffs.

And John Flanagan, a Republican Senator, recently called for a public sector wage freeze.

Those are only five of 212 lawmakers, however, and, for now, the major consideration is whether Paterson includes a furlough in next week’s budget extender, assuming no budget is passed by then.

If he does, lawmakers would face two stark choices: support the extender with its furlough, which like a pay freeze would anger unions, or not pass a budget, which could lead to a state shutdown, similar to what happened when Congressional Republicans, led by Newt Gingrich, briefly froze the federal budget in the mid-1990s.

“A government shutdown means that no one gets paid, the government is not operating,” Paterson said. “We would try to keep essential services going but we don’t have the resources to pay for them; it is a terrible circumstance.”

When asked how budget talks with lawmakers were going, Paterson said “as long as the budget isn’t passed, they can’t be going very well.”

Rick Karlin can be reached at 454-5758 or

Read more:

NYS Assembly Democrats

  • Sandra Galef: 90th Assembly District representing the Towns of Cortlandt, Ossining, Kent, Philipstown, Putnam Valley and the City of Peekskill.
  • Sam Hoyt: 144th Assembly District representing west and northwest Buffalo and the Town of Grand Island.
  • Ginny Fields: 5th Assembly District representing Bayport, Holbrook, Lake Ronkonkoma, Ronkonkoma, Oakdale, Sayville, and West Sayville, parts of Bohemia, Centereach, Farmingville, Holtsville, Selden, most of Fire Island (Kismet to Davis Park), Captree Island and Captree State Park.
  • Michael Benjamin: 79th Assembly District representing portions of the Bronx.

NYS Senator Republicans

  • John Flanagan: 2nd Senate District representing Town of Smithtown and portions of both the Town of Brookhaven and the Town of Huntington.

About Kari

I live in the Capital Region of NY, work for NYS, and am just beginning to blog. I was recently diagnosed with Fibromyalgia, so that's going to take up some content. I've been writing for as long as I can remember, and I am an opinionated person. Thus there will be some items that burn me up, that I simply want to play devil's advocate, or daily/personal items. I also Tweet (@Marilyth) when the mood strikes me in 140 characters or less. I'm doing this for fun, and I hope other appreciate the information and contribute!
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