2009-07-16 / Local & State

State Workers Brace For 'Payless Paydays'


HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) - Pennsylvania's budget breakdown is approaching its third week, with no end in sight, and anxiety is mounting among the tens of thousands of people who keep the state government running.

Without a budget to authorize payments for work performed since June 30, the "payless payday'' has become a discomforting new fact of life for most state employees.

Some have already seen their paychecks reduced. Many more will be in the same boat Friday, and if the political impasse at the Capitol lasts through July 31, their paychecks will stop altogether.

Things could be worse. Several credit unions and banks are offering no- or low-interest loans and other special help for affected workers. Their health insurance coverage remains intact and is not expected to be affected. And all employees will be reimbursed retroactively for missed wages once a budget is signed into law.

But those facts don't pay the mortgage, electricity and other household bills. They don't cover expenses that come with holding a job - day care for young children, gasoline, parking fees. They don't replenish savings or investments that have to be tapped for cash as the budgetless days add up.

Several state employees approached at random in a lunchhour crowd near the Capitol this week declined to be interviewed because their superiors had instructed them not to talk with reporters about the budget mess.

But one man, an accountant who has two young children, acknowledged paying more of his bills on credit in anticipation of not being paid.

"It's going to get harder as this goes on,'' he said.

Cpl. Tom Maher, a state trooper who lives in Uniontown with his wife and three young children, said he is paying a mortgage on his present home and a loan for construction of a new house that began in April.

"It is disheartening to know that I have to go to work, with the very real possibility that I may not return home to my family at the end of my shift, only to not get paid for doing so,'' he said.

Rob Buchanan, a tax collector for the state Revenue Department in Harrisburg, echoed fellow workers' frustration over the slow pace of budget talks and the fact that negotiators took the Fourth of July weekend off instead of rolling up their sleeves.

"It's their game,'' he said, "and we're their football.''

The rules have changed during the seven consecutive years in which Pennsylvania's budget has not been passed on time.

In 2007, the Rendell administration furloughed about 25,000 employees whose jobs were judged not to be "critical'' - more than one-quarter of the state work force - for one day. Those who did fit that category - state troopers and prison guards, for example - continued to work and were paid as usual.

The payless-payday policy grew out of a Commonwealth Court judge's decision last year on a lawsuit by state employee unions challenging the furlough policy.

Judge Mary Hannah Leavitt ruled that, when a budget is held up by politics, the governor must either furlough all state employees during the impasse or keep them working without pay.

Around the Capitol, signs and cards protesting payless paydays are beginning to show up.

One worker obscured his state credentials with a card identifying him as a "State Volunteer'' and bearing a happy face symbol.

Council 13 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees has designated Tuesday as a "day of action'' and is urging members to wear orange "budget hostage'' armbands to show their solidarity.

Meanwhile, state employees gaze into the void that is the 2009-10 state budget and count their pennies.

"It's pretty scary right now,'' Buchanan said.

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