R.I. governor threatens to lay off 1,000 workers

By Ray Henry
Associated Press / September 4, 2009

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PROVIDENCE - Governor Donald L. Carcieri warned yesterday that he will lay off 1,000 state workers after a judge blocked him from shutting down the government to save money, but he signaled a willingness to cut a deal with employee unions that could save jobs.

The governor threatened layoffs shortly after Supreme Court Justice Maureen McKenna Goldberg stopped him from forcing about 80 percent of the roughly 13,500-member state workforce to stay home without pay today.

Carcieri cannot order a shutdown until the full court has a chance to consider the case.

Today’s scheduled closure was supposed to be the first of a dozen shutdown days to help the state close a $68 million shortfall in it annual spending plan.

Carcieri earlier described the ruling as “the straw that broke the camel’s back’’ and ruinous for the state’s finances, but he softened his tone after meeting with his legal team at the State House.

“That’s my preference, to negotiate this and come to an agreement,’’ Carcieri said. “But we’re running out of time.’’

Under his plan, layoffs would target those hired most recently, a decision that is intended to minimize delays caused by union rules that allow senior employees who are laid off to take the jobs of less-experienced workers.

Carcieri did not say which agencies would be targeted, and his spokeswoman did not return a call seeking comment.

Laying off so many people could take weeks or even months, especially if some of those workers would have to be replaced because their jobs are critical to the state, union leaders said. They were uncertain yesterday whether Carcieri was bluffing.

“I think calmer heads need to prevail,’’ said Philip Keefe, president of the Rhode Island Alliance of Social Service Employees, Local 580. “He needs to go back to the negotiating table and stop with the threats. I don’t think they’re productive.’’

Carcieri’s warning rattled employees, who work in a state with a 12.7 percent jobless rate.

“I am totally willing to take 12 furlough days in order to avoid people being laid off,’’ said Cristina Dichiera, a program director for the Rhode Island State Council for the Arts. Getting laid off “would be so bad, I don’t even want to think about it,’’ she said.

The high court has scheduled a Sept. 11 private meeting with lawyers for both sides.