A federal judge has temporarily blocked a one-day furlough of state workers until he can hear arguments in two weeks. In doing so, however, he also referred to a pay freeze upheld in Buffalo.

U.S. District Judge Lawrence Kahn also ruled that public employees should be granted a negotiated 4 percent pay raise, which Governor David Paterson has withheld since April 1, citing the state’s cash flow problems.

In issuing his restraining order (here), Kahn mentioned a court decision that upheld an earlier pay freeze in the city of Buffalo, saying there is a “legitimate public purpose” for government to address fiscal emergencies.

For articles on court decision, see herehere and here.

The one-day furlough, approved by the Legislature last week as part of an emergency spending bill, would save $30 million. Four public employee unions filed lawsuits challenging the action. As the Buffalo Newsreports:

The unions alleged that the contracts clause of the U.S. Constitution was violated by the furloughs and pay freeze.

The judge said the unions met two key legal hurdles for him to issue his order: showing irreparable harm and presenting a case likely to succeed on the merits.

(snip)

Kahn cautioned that the state can still prove its case for the need for the furloughs.

Kahn’s decision also noted both houses of the Legislature passed resolutions objecting to the furloughs. That is a different situation than when federal and courts upheld pay freezes in New York City, Buffalo and Yonkers, because legislative findings supported the need for emergency control boards.

The Empire Center has proposed a statewide freeze on public employee wages to help address the current financial turmoil affecting the state, local governments and school districts.

“Temporary wage freezes are lawful under New York and Federal law provided they are supported with appropriate legislative findings and tailored in a reasonable manner to protect the public,” concludes the opinion written by Terry O’Neil and Howard Miller, partners at the law firm of Bond, Schoeneck & King, PLLC.

O’Neil and Miller cite federal and state court decisions upholding wage freezes in New York City, Yonkers and Buffalo, all imposed with legislative authorizations by state-created financial control boards. In another case, a federal court upheld a furlough in Baltimore, Md.

“In short, a court reviewing a statutory wage freeze will likely defer to legislative findings of a fiscal emergency,” they write. “If it can be shown that other less intrusive interventions were tried without success to protect the public, the Legislation will be upheld.” To read, their advisory opinion, see here.

Public employee unions rejected Paterson’s request that they voluntarily agree to forgo their 4 percent raises. The governor still could ask the Legislature to make a finding of a fiscal emergency and impose a prospective wage freeze.

Originally Published: NY Public Payroll Watch

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