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State union proposes furloughs, fewer raises.

Byline: David Steves The Register-Guard

SALEM - Oregon's largest public employees union is proposing a two-year contract that would forgo a cost-of-living increase for 23,000 state workers and require that they take eight unpaid furlough days in the next two years.

The Service Employees International Union Local 503's proposal, described Thursday at a state Capitol news conference, was presented two days earlier to the state. The service employees union represents nearly half the state's work force, including 4,000 classified employees on seven university campuses, including the University of Oregon.

The union still proposes to keep experience-based "step" increases that could result in annual pay increases of up to 4.8 percent. But the union's bargaining chairman, Kermit Meling, emphasized that the proposal would accept the most important economic constraints called for in December by Democratic Gov. Ted Kulongoski.

"No matter what got our country into this mess, it will take some shared sacrifice to get us through it," said Meling, an Oregon Department of Transportation employee.

Two of the union employees' furlough days would be taken off in the coming four months, to help close a shortfall before the 2007-09 budget's June 30 expiration. The union said it would encourage its members to devote those days to community service in soup kitchens, homeless shelters or other forms of volunteerism.

The union's executive director, Leslie Frane, said she hoped that, by going along with a pay freeze and the unpaid days off, other cost-saving steps could be avoided.

"We are very concerned about the threat of layoffs, particularly in agencies where the economic crisis has created demand for increased services," she said.

So far, the governor has not proposed layoffs. But with an $800 million shortfall for the soon-to-expire 2007-09 budget and a $2 billion gap in revenues and current program levels in 2009-11, top officials are not ruling out the possibility.

Those prospects could be more seriously considered if future revenue forecasts, including the next one coming out on Feb. 20, indicate a further deterioration of income tax collections.

The eight furlough days, if applied to all 50,000 state employees, would save the state about $35 million for the general fund. Foregoing 2 percent annual cost-of-living increases for state workers in each of the next two years would reduce state general fund costs by an additional $79 million, said Lonn Hoklin, spokesman for the state Department of Administrative Services.

Ken Allen, executive director of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 75, said his union also is proposing to freeze wages and furlough workers. However, with several of his members in jobs where patient or public safety is at stake - in the state mental hospital, prisons, and state-run group homes for the disabled, for instance - not all workers should be furloughed.

He said alternatives are being pursued, such as changing those workers' holidays from paid to unpaid on eight days over two years.

Allen said that, like SEIU, his union is not willing to apply the wage freeze to "step" increases in worker pay. Last year, the state agreed to add a step to all workers at the top of their pay scales. That means virtually all nonmanagement workers and about half of the managers will get a raise this year of about 4.8 percent - even if they forego the cost-of-living increases as proposed by Kulongoski and, now, the unions.

Anna Richter Taylor, the governor's chief spokeswoman, declined to speak in detail about what the state will ask from unions in contract talks. While the SEIU proposal complies with the budget savings Kulongoski called for in December, Richter Taylor said, the revenue outlook is more dire now than it was then - and could look worse after the next quarterly projection.

"The governor appreciates SEIU's offer and recognition of the fiscal crisis we're facing," she said. "But we have to wait for the revenue forecast next week before we can provide a responsible and prudent response."

Nick Smith, spokesman for the House Republicans, said the union had little choice but to eventually accept the pay freeze and unpaid days, given the state's economic realities, public sentiment, and the governor's commitment to such cost-saving measures. Even so, he gave the union credit for stepping forward so early in contract talks with acceptance of those terms.

"The members of SEIU deserve thanks from all Oregonians for accepting these furloughs and foregoing (cost-of-living increases) for the next two years," he said. "But Republicans believe that the governor should go further to essentially freeze the salaries of all state employees, not just those belonging to SEIU, as well as to impose across-the-board reductions for political appointees and state agency directors."
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Title Annotation:City/Region; But employees would still see annual "step" pay increases of up to 4.8 percent
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Feb 13, 2009
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