Budget Crisis Hits Home

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State workers in East County struggle to cope with prospect of huge pay cuts, lay-offs; Judge orders Sept. 12 hearing on Governor’s wage-slashing orders

By Miriam Raftery
Photos by Aida Canonizado

November 4, 2008 (El Cajon)--Mildred Scarber, a state employee who works at the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) in El Cajon, was shocked to learn that Governor Schwarzenegger has ordered all state employees’ pay rates slashed to the federal minimum wage: just $6.55 an hour.

“This drops my pay by two-thirds,” said Scarber, a salaried employee who has worked at the DMV for eleven years. “Previously our pay roughly came to $18 an hour.”  In addition, the Governor has eliminated all overtime – so Scarber also loses the $100 to $300 a month she typically earned helping staff the ever-busy DMV office. 

If the Governor’s order stands, Scarber’s next monthly paycheck will be just $1,028.  “My rent is $1,050,” she said. 

Still, Scarber counts herself lucky compared to some workers in her office.  “It was really emotional the day the executive order came down,” she recalled, adding that part-timers with young children are the hardest hit.  “There was crying going on.” 
Statewide, some workers may have hours cut and lose healthcare benefits, she added.

Scarber is among about 180,000 state workers slated to have paychecks slashed to the federal minimum wage for August and beyond, until the California Legislature passes a budget that is signed by Governor Schwarzenegger.

As of press deadline, no budget had been signed. But state workers dodged a bullet temporarily. On August 20, a Sacramento Superior Court judge issued an order for the state to pay workers full salaries for August, but set a September 12th date to decide the pay dispute.

“The Governor’s Executive Order shows a total disregard for state workers and the valuable services they provide Californians.  This applies to most of the 94,000 workers that SEIU (Service Employees International Union) Local 1000 represents,” said SEIU representative Brian Polejes.  In addition, the Governor’s executive order laid off approximately 10,000 workers statewide.

On August 16th, Local 1000 organized a protest rally at a DMV in Hillcrest.  Nearly 200 people turned out, including 150 state workers and about 50 community members who came to show support, Polejes said.   

“We had a worker at the rally; she and her husband had just bought a house the month before and their first payment is due the end of the month,” Scarber said.  “That brought tears to my eyes.” Now she added, “We’re trying to get public support.”

California Controller John Chiang has thus far refused to implement the Governor’s order, stating that he cannot do so on such short notice due to computer program limitations. The Governor is suing Chiang to force implementation.
The union is fighting back.  SEIU Local 1000 has joined the Controller as a respondent in that lawsuit.  In addition, Polejes said, “SEIU Local 1000 also sued for injunctive relief in Sacramento Superior Court and at the California Public Employees Relation Board (PERB), alleging the Governor had violated separation of powers, which requires the Legislature to do layoffs, and the merit pay system.” 

The PERB suit also charged the Governor with an Unfair Labor Practice due to reduction of wages during collective bargaining.  “We also sued the Governor in Superior Court for failing to pay  laid-off workers their terminal paychecks,” Polejes added.

Consumers are also feeling the impact of budget cutbacks. 

“The El Cajon DMV is the largest field office in San Diego, and approximately one-fourth of its workers are permanent-intermittent,” Polejes told East County Magazine.  Elimination of overtime and reduction of permanent-intermittent workers’ hours has forced DMV offices to stop accepting drop-in customers by mid-afternoon daily. The DMV has also halted Saturday business hours at 14 locations statewide, making it more difficult for customers who work weekdays to obtain driver’s licenses or handle other important matters at the DMV.

California is the last among states with fiscal years starting July 1st to fail to pass a budget this year.   Obtaining bipartisan agreement is difficult, because California is one of only three states that requires a two-thirds vote to pass a budget. 

“Many Republicans have taken a `no new tax’ pledge, tying [the Legislature’s] hands in a year with a large deficit like this one, in which the deficit is estimated at $15.2 billion,” Polejes said.  “Their `solution’ is to permanently ratchet down spending, which is primarily on education and healthcare,” he said. 

Republican Assemblyman Joel Anderson, who represents much of East County, has proposed eliminating numerous state boards and commissions. His opponent, Democrat Ray Lutz, who founded the watchdog group Citizens Oversight Panels (COPs), said Anderson’s proposal would eliminate important consumer oversight entities that are important to protect the public health and safety.

The Governor has proposed a temporary 1% increase in sales tax, a move opposed by Polejes, who said it would fall heaviest on poor, working and middle class Californians.

“A responsible budget would combine cuts with revenue increases to protect valuable services,” he said, adding that the Democrats’ proposed budget would increase taxes on the wealthiest Californians.

Polejes remained optimistic that a budget would be signed soon. But SEIU plans to pursue the lawsuit regardless of the budget outcome to prevent state workers from bearing the brunt in future budget impasses.

Meanwhile, state employees like Mildred Scarber are anxiously awaiting word.  “I share a condo with my sister and my mother lives nearby.  I also have another sister who is a state worker, too, so she’s affected.”

Scarber’s biggest fear is that she could lose her home if the budget crisis is not resolved soon.  If the pay cut stands, she hopes her landlord will prove understanding of her plight.

“I’ve been tightening my belt in anticipation of getting a small paycheck,” she said, “But I’m just praying it will be resolved.”

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