Hawaii Court Stops Furloughs

Hawaii State Teachers Ass’n et. al. v. Linda Lingle, Governor, State of Hawaii et. al. (Hawaii Circuit Court, First Circuit, Case No. 09-1-1372-06 KKS) (Issued on 7/29/09)

Many people have mentioned that in addition to a federal district court in Maryland, a trial court in Hawaii has also enjoined public employee furloughs. Unlike the case in Maryland, the Hawaii case involved a state court ruling. Hawaii is one of only five states in the nation where the right to engage in collective bargaining is enshrined in the state constitution (the other states are New York, Florida, Missouri, and New Jersey). The scope of representation in Hawaii includes, “wages, hours, and other conditions of employment.” In June 2009, Governor Lingle announced that the state was going to unilaterally impose 3 furlough days per month on all state employees. Not surprisingly, the state employee unions brought suit to stop the planned furloughs.

Instead of filing a charge with the Hawaii Labor Relations Board (“HLRB”), the unions went directly to court. Under Hawaii law, the HLRB has “exclusive original jurisdiction” over controversies involving the state’s collective bargaining laws. However, the law expressly provides that “nothing herein shall prevent the pursuit of relief in courts of competent jurisdiction.” Based on the latter language, the court held that the unions were entitled to seek relief directly with the courts instead of having to go through the HLRB.

On the merits, the state court had little trouble finding that a plan imposing 3 furlough days per month affected the “wages, hours, and other conditions of employment.”  Indeed, from the decision it wasn’t even clear if the state itself thought it had a valid defense. I think the state’s primary argument was that there was an “emergency” justifying the Governor’s unilateral actions. However, the court found that the Governor failed to properly raise an “emergency” defense; instead, the Governor justified the furloughs on the need to achieve labor cost savings.

Comments:

All in all, I don’t consider this case to be ground-breaking.  It was a trial court decision in Hawaii so it has no precedential value either.  I think the California courts and PERB would have reached the same result given these facts.  I do think that the public sector labor relations statutes in California allow some flexibility for employers to unilaterally change terms and conditions of employment in “emergencies.”  (That right is expressly provided for in the Dills Act.)  Unfortunately, what constitutes an emergency has never been clearly delineated by PERB or the courts.  Governor Schwarzenegger, unlike Governor Lingle, expressly raised the “emergency” defense in response to challenges to the furloughs.  So the California cases will be much more interesting than the one in Hawaii.

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