FRANKFORT — Six state workers and their labor union sued Gov. Steve Beshear on Friday seeking a court injunction against six days of unpaid furlough that Beshear announced in July as a cost-saving measure.
In their lawsuit, filed in Franklin Circuit Court, the state workers said that they do work of critical importance for the public and that their agencies already are understaffed. Forcing them to take days off could put people's lives at risk, they said.
"This is going to cause more problems than it solves," said Casey Chadwell, 25, a corrections officer at Kentucky Correctional Psychiatric Center in La Grange. Chadwell appeared at the courthouse Friday with other members of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which said it represents nearly 9,000 Kentucky state workers.
"We don't have enough officers in our units as it is," Chadwell said. "When you start furloughing us, you've got a safety risk to inmates and staff, and you're paying overtime — time and a half — to try and cover the furloughed officers, so you're not even really saving any money."
Beshear's office declined to comment.
"We have not seen the lawsuit," said Beshear spokeswoman Jill Midkiff. "However, this furlough plan was authorized by the General Assembly and means that we will be able to save over 400 state employees from being laid off."
The governor is aware that some state agencies — such as prisons, police and mental-health hospitals — must operate 24 hours a day, Midkiff said. The budget requires state employees to be treated the same, but "we have the ability to allow limited exceptions" at those agencies, based on cost savings, legal obligations and public safety, she said. Agency furlough proposals still are being developed, she said.
When Beshear presented the furlough plan to the state Personnel Board in July, he said it would save about $24 million. As part of the two-year budget passed in May, Beshear must cut $131 million in addition to 3.5 percent spending cuts to most state agencies this year.
But the state workers on Friday said Beshear should look elsewhere for savings.
In their suit, the workers said safety already is compromised at state agencies because of understaffing.
For example, the main gate at the Luther Luckett Correctional Complex in La Grange is unmanned, allowing vehicles and pedestrians to enter the prison without being stopped or questioned, according to the suit. The electric fences around the Kentucky State Reformatory, also in La Grange, frequently are inoperable, the suit alleges.
One of the plaintiffs, social worker Rebecca Harbin, included an affidavit in which she described rearranging her work schedule to remove children from dangerous situations and then following up to check on them.
"We are already short staffed. We already work overtime," Harbin wrote. "One less staff (member) could mean the difference between getting children out of a dangerous situation or a fatal delay."
Faced with budget deficits, more than half of the states have ordered some or all of their employees to take unpaid furloughs, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. California has ordered nearly 50 days of furlough for its state work force since February 2009.
That state's Franchise Tax Board issued a report in February stating that California's blanket furloughs may cost the state more money than they save, because some state agencies collect money, like the tax department, and others, such as prisons, must be staffed at all times, requiring expensive overtime pay to fill the gaps.