Murphy: Union Leaders OK Furlough Plan for State Workers

With ratification vote pending, governor is mum on how much the proposal would ease the COVID-19 strain on Trenton’s finances
Credit: (Tariq Zehawi, Gannett)
Gov. Phil Murphy during a daily briefing on the pandemic.

Gov. Phil Murphy said Tuesday he has an agreement with officials from a powerful labor union that would protect state workers from layoffs as his administration works to maintain a balanced budget amid steep revenue losses caused by the pandemic.

Instead of job losses, Murphy said during a media briefing that his administration is seeking approval from members of the Communications Workers of America-New Jersey to implement worker furloughs and to delay negotiated wage increases.

A vote on ratification of the potential agreement by union members would come later this week, the governor said.

Murphy refused to provide additional details during the briefing, citing the tentative nature of the deal. The governor’s office also declined to comment when asked by NJ Spotlight to provide information about any potential cost savings.

Officials from the union could not be reached Tuesday, but a statement posted on the CWA-NJ website called the proposed agreement “remarkable” in that it avoided layoffs “in an environment such as this.”

“Deferring wage increases and having workers furloughed, even for a few days, is difficult,” the statement also said.

As the pandemic has taken hold across New Jersey in recent months, Murphy, a first-term Democrat, has faced calls from lawmakers to cut costs in order to offset deep budget shortfalls that have been projected by his administration.

Lawmakers also sent the governor legislation last month that would allow for voluntary partial furloughs at the state and local level to be enacted in a way that would allow many public workers to take full advantage of enhanced unemployment benefits being provided by the federal government through the end of next month.

Raise is due next month

Some lawmakers also raised concerns about a planned 2% wage increase CWA union members are due to receive July 1, even as funding for property-tax relief for New Jersey seniors and the disabled was slashed as part of a broader effort to offset as much as $10 billion in projected revenue losses.

Murphy has also been pressing lawmakers to approve an emergency borrowing proposal in response to the pandemic that could result in sales-tax increases and bring on statewide property-tax levies to ensure the bonds are paid off. That proposal has been approved by the Assembly, but is now stalled in the Senate.

It’s unclear under the potential deal Murphy announced Tuesday which of the CWA raises will be delayed, a July 1 wage increase or others that are scheduled to occur in the future under the state’s latest contract with the union. Also unclear is how many days union members may be furloughed, and whether the proposed deal will also impact planned seniority increases that can also add to the bottom line for taxpayers.

Pressed by a reporter during Tuesday’s briefing to provide more details, Murphy pointed to the pending vote by members of CWA-NJ — the largest union representing state workers.

“Out of respect to the fact that it’s not yet ratified, I’m not going to say anything more about it,” Murphy said.

More than a decade ago, with New Jersey in the grip of the Great Recession, then Gov. Jon Corzine also declined to lay off unionized workers as he managed a massive budget shortfall. Instead, Corzine, a one-term Democrat, implemented other cost-saving measures, including 10 furlough days and deferred wage increases.

Republicans who serve on the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee raised concerns about the potential deal, saying annual raises can still be awarded based on longevity under other terms of the contract, even if workers’ annual cost-of-living adjustments are suspended.

“Transparency is important in State government, especially in extraordinarily challenging times like this,” said Sen. Declan O’Scanlon (R-Monmouth). “The deal announced (by Murphy) appears to leave out critical information about its impact, including unsustainable 4 percent raises continuing to be given out, even where agencies have been shut for the past three months.”