By Daniel Bice, Journal-Sentinel
Those county employees recently received checks of as much as $8,000 in back pay, plus interest, for lost wages as a result of mandatory unpaid furloughs.
Not bad pay for time the staffers didn’t actually work.
The furlough days were imposed in 2010 as an emergency measure by Gov. Scott Walker, then the county executive, and the County Board. Courts have since ruled that the furloughs violated the terms of county contracts.
Total doled out this month by county taxpayers as a result: $4.5 million.
The sum includes $829,299 in interest that had to be paid on top of the lost wages for the county employees.
“As a taxpayer, I’m appalled by it,” said Richard Abelson, executive director of District Council 48 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.
But it’s exactly what his union was fighting for ever since the county imposed the furloughs.
Faced with a looming $15 million budget shortfall, Walker considered several drastic measures to balance the books late in 2009.
At first, he favored setting a 35-hour workweek for county highway workers, office employees and other county workers. But he and County Board leaders later hashed out a plan to require many employees to take up to 26 unpaid furlough days, with the exact number of days varying by department.
The union said the action violated its collective bargaining agreement.
Abelson said last week that the county should have considered layoffs before unilaterally imposing furlough days.
The courts have sided with the union.
Last year, the Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission said the county should have limited furloughs to a little more than a week’s pay. It said the county had to repay the county workers for any unpaid furlough time exceeding 45 hours.
Top county officials objected to the ruling and filed an appeal. But Milwaukee County Circuit Judge William Sosnay affirmed the earlier decision and ordered the county to pay up.
The County Board recently signed off on a settlement deal with the union.
Brendan Conway, spokesman for County Executive Chris Abele, said checks went out on Aug. 16 to 1,585 current and former county workers.
The average payment was $2,843.
Fortunately, the county had set aside about $5 million in case something like this happened, Conway said, so the payments won’t upend the county budget.
Even so, he emphasized that his boss wasn’t at fault for the situation.
“This has nothing to do with us,” Conway said.
So who is to blame?
Abelson points the finger at Walker and two County Board members who helped negotiate the deal – ex-Chairman Lee Holloway and Supervisor Patricia Jursik, who was chairwoman of the Personnel Committee.
“It really was a collaboration,” Abelson said.
Cullen Werwie, spokesman for Walker, said the governor had no comment. Holloway, who retired from politics earlier this year, could not be reached for comment on Friday.
Jursik called Abelson’s remarks “ridiculous.”
She said it was unfair to single out a few people. The full board and the county executive adopted the budget with the furloughs. She said many people disagreed on what the court would do. But county officials needed to act, she said, to eliminate the deficit.
“It was a tough budget,” Jursik said. “These were actions of the entire county.”
Some county workers may be in line for another lump-sum payment.
Abelson said the county imposed 13 furlough days on many staffers in 2011. According to the courts, the county should have limited furloughs to 45 hours per person.
“The matter was crystal clear,” Abelson said. “It should have been crystal clear to anybody who was making policy at the time that this was a bad idea.”
But, of course, most of those individuals are no longer with Milwaukee County government.