Wage-cut plan angers state workers

Times Staff Writers

No one likes to wake up to the news that the boss may slash salaries to the minimum wage.

California’s state workers on Thursday were digesting the news that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger may cut their pay to the federal minimum wage of $6.55 an hour until legislators send him a budget he can sign.

For some, that went down about as well as a meal that could be afforded on minimum wage.

“I’d probably be out on the streets . . . learning how to eat out of garbage cans,” said Zola Salena-Hawkins, a legal secretary at the attorney general’s office at the Ronald Reagan State Office Building in downtown Los Angeles.

Salena-Hawkins said she left the private sector nine years ago for job security and benefits, but with the way things are going, she’s “thoroughly disappointed.”


“I’m a Republican. Ouch!” she said. “It really hurts to see the way everything is falling apart, especially during a Republican watch.”

Schwarzenegger was expected to sign the order early next week, affecting 200,000 state workers. The deadline for passing a 2008-09 budget was July 1, and without one soon, California may be unable to borrow billions of dollars needed to keep the state solvent, officials have warned.

The plan would allow the state to defer paying about $1 billion a month, administration officials said. Workers would be repaid their lost earnings once a budget was in place. But many workers questioned how they would pay their immediate costs: mortgages, food, gas, child support.

“I won’t be able to survive,” said Carolina Castillo, a legal secretary. “I have three kids, I’m a single mom. . . . There’s just no way.”

Castillo, 34, said that if her wages were cut, she might need welfare and would have no choice but to return to the private sector, which she left a year and a half ago for a steadier schedule and more time with her family.

However, some state workers with a knowledge of political history considered the prospect of Schwarzenegger’s plan with a Zen calm. Many a July has come and gone without a budget in place but with dramatic predictions of layoffs and pay cuts that never came to pass, they noted.

“It’s possible but improbable,” said Don Williams, a staffer in the Department of Social Services who ruefully called himself “a veteran of many wars” during his state service.

Williams said he thought the governor’s proposal “was strategically done to get the attention of the Legislature. It definitely got the attention of the state workers.”

But he added he wasn’t too worried yet. “For it to happen, a lot of things will have to transpire.”

He’s right. For starters, State Controller John Chiang has said he would not implement such an order, asserting the state has enough money on hand. Also, the governor’s plan, if carried out, probably would be challenged in court by public employee unions. “Anything’s possible the way things are going with the economy,” said Gary Balekjian, a deputy attorney general, as he crossed the street in front of the Reagan building. “The sun could supernova too.”

Balekjian, who defends the state against employees’ lawsuits -- and emphasized he was speaking only for himself, not his office -- said such a move would not save the state in the long run. Balekjian said he is ethically obligated to continue his legal work whether he is paid or not. But if he were to quit because of a drastic salary cut, he added, the state would have to scramble for new lawyers, possibly delaying court cases that would leave the state vulnerable to costly damage payments to plaintiffs. “It’s like cutting off your nose to spite your face,” he said.

As drafted, the order also calls for the state to immediately lay off 21,855 part-time workers, stop overtime payments for almost all employees and cease all hiring until a budget is enacted.

“I’m kind of worried that one of them might be me,” said Jason Kwan, a part-time student assistant in litigation support.

Kwan, 24, is worried that without his job, he won’t be able to pay off his student loans at Cal State L.A. or afford law school.

The response from unions to Schwarzenegger’s plan was immediate and angry.

“The governor is turning a budget crisis into a catastrophe,” said Yvonne Walker, president of Service Employees International Union Local 1000, which represents 95,000 state workers. “How can you tell people, ‘We will just pay you this amount and you can catch up later?’

“We are in the middle of a housing crisis, and people are losing their mortgages,” she said. “Are they going to issue a notice to mortgage companies that employees will just catch up later?”

Walker said she believed the governor’s plan was illegal, and union attorneys are drafting a lawsuit to file if the order is signed.

In the meantime, some state workers had their own suggestions for Schwarzenegger.

“I think the governor should fund the budget with his own resources until he and the Legislature can get together,” said Paul Ablon, a state attorney for nearly nine years. “And maybe he’ll appreciate how it is to worry about paying your expenses.”


Times staff writer Evan Halper contributed to this report.