Furlough fight likely to wind up in court unless lawmakers step in

Coronavirus

HONOLULU (KHON2) — With unions set to challenge the governor’s proposal to furlough state workers, experts say it could ultimately be up to the courts to decide. But the legislature can also step in and provide a solution.

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The big question is whether the governor is allowed to impose the furloughs through his emergency powers. Some legal experts say that was not the intention of the state legislature when it changed the law in 2013.

Gov. David Ige wants to furlough state workers two days a month starting January, which he says will save the state $300 million a year. It will help offset a budget shortfall of $1.4 billion a year for the next four years. State law calls for furloughs to be negotiated with the unions by collective bargaining. But the pandemic allows the governor to use his emergency powers.

And the state attorney general says that authority allows the governor to suspend any law that impedes or conflicts with emergency functions. And the unprecedented COVID-19 emergency encompasses the economic and fiscal aspects of the pandemic.

“I do not agree with the interpretation that the legislature intended to give the governor that kind of authority simply because of the way the statute evolved,” said labor attorney Colleen Hanabusa. She does not represent either side.

She says when state lawmakers changed the law regarding emergency powers in 2013, it wasn’t meant to suspend collective bargaining. So the courts will likely have to decide. And during that time, also rule whether the furloughs can start while the legal process is ongoing. Lawmakers can also step in.

“To me there’s no reason why the legislature can’t now come in or the governor can’t call the legislature and the legislature can now interpret what it is that they feel should happen,” said Hanabusa.

She adds that in the last state worker furlough in 2009, lawmakers stepped in after parents staged sit-in protests inside then Gov. Linda Lingle’s office. Parents were angry at how much school time students were missing with furlough Fridays.

“It was the legislature who came back in and found the money, if I recall correctly, and that’s how the furlough Friday ended,” said Hanabusa.

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