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Engineers sue state over layoffs

By Paul Snyder

The State Engineers Association is suing Wisconsin, 12 state agencies and the UW System to stop what the union characterizes as layoffs affecting about 1,120 members.

“This borders on corruption,” said William Haus, the association’s attorney with Madison-based Haus, Roman & Banks LLP. “We have a right to collectively bargain in this state, and we haven’t been able to do that.”

Gov. Jim Doyle in June issued an executive order mandating state employees take eight annual furlough days in 2009 and 2010 to help shore up the state’s budget shortfall. But the union’s contract with the state does not include the term “furlough,” Haus said. He said the contract does include “layoffs.”

According to the lawsuit, the union contract does not allow a reduction in union member hours to take place over nonconsecutive days. So, Haus said, state engineers are taking their eight days off consecutively, rather than on nonconsecutive furlough days.

By taking consecutive unpaid days off, Haus said, the union members are missing a full week of work, which, according to the contract, makes them eligible for unemployment benefits. To avoid paying for the benefits, Haus said, the state proposed a memorandum of understanding in which state engineers could take nonconsecutive furlough days.

He said the union did not agree to the memorandum because the state attached a requirement the union admit its contract allowed furloughs all along.

“They were using it for leverage,” he said. “And when I asked the guys with the Office of State Employment Relations why that had to be in there, they said, ‘I don’t know, but our lawyers said we needed it.’”

With an unsigned memorandum, the state then chose to force union members to take a ninth furlough day to offset cost of the unemployment benefits, Haus said.

David Vergerot, chief legal counsel for OSER, said he heard the lawsuit might happen, but he declined to comment because he had not yet seen the court documents.

Bill Cosh, spokesman in Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen’s office, declined to comment for the same reason.

Mark Klipstein, SEA president and project manager with the Wisconsin Department of Transportation on the Interstate 94 north-south corridor, said once the state employees heard they might lose their unemployment benefits for furlough days or be forced to take an extra unpaid day, they agreed it was time to fight back.

“The problem is state employees are being used as pawns in this political game,” he said. “The big issue here is that these furloughs are supposed to save money, but it’s just costing the state more.”

WisDOT uses private consultants on more than 70 percent of its projects, Klipstein said, and more than half of the SEA employees represented in the lawsuit are WisDOT employees.

The state Legislature this year has been investigating the department’s use of private consultants, but, Klipstein said, it is an issue that cannot be resolved until the state ends hiring freezes and layoffs.

Haus said state agencies must pay more attention to their contracts.

“They want carte blanche,” he said. “We’re supposed to just suffer whatever loss they impose upon us. If this work is going out to private consultants at a higher rate, that’s not fair to the taxpayers.

“Yes, it’s always easier to sign whatever they put under your nose. But that’s not necessarily fair, not necessarily good and not necessarily right.”

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