Furloughs Cut Into State Services
By Pauline Vu, Staff Writer
With states facing a $121 billion shortfall in the next fiscal year, a growing number of them have turned to squeezing their workforce for savings, and effects are being felt, both great and small.
In Hawaii, some criminal trials will likely have to be rescheduled because public defenders are being furloughed - or forced to take unpaid days off - three Fridays a month. In New Jersey, about 5,000 parolees went unmonitored for a day in May and June as their parole officers were forced to stay home.
In Georgia, state prosecutors have been furloughed at least one day a month since September, with each day off causing a backlog of about 500 criminal cases. Meanwhile, petty, nonviolent criminal charges are in danger of being dismissed.
"We're getting critically close to not being able to look at every case," said Rick Malone, the executive director of the Prosecuting Attorneys Council of Georgia . "There's only so much time in the day … Certainly we will have to screen (cases) more carefully, more finely."
Although state jobs are usually among the most stable, more than 728,500 state employees in at least 21 states have already or will be furloughed, and several other states are also considering furloughs for their workers.
By comparison, at least 54,000 state workers have been laid off so far, according to tallies by the National Conference of State Legislatures and the Association of Federal, State, County and Municipal Employees union (AFSCME).
"People were saying, 'well if things are so bad, why aren't people getting laid off?' The answer to that is that in a lot of places, they're choosing furloughs," said AFSCME's Kerri Korpi.
The furloughs translate to pay cuts for workers, ranging from 0.5 percent in North Carolina to 13.8 percent in Hawaii. Employees whose jobs are deemed essential to public health and safety, such as police officers and veterans' homes employees, aren't furloughed.
The move will affect state services at a time when a bad economy means more people are relying on such services. Disability checks are delayed, for example, and in Hawaii, the state will take even longer to process unemployment claims.
Even patients at the country's last remaining leper colony will feel the effects. The 15 people suffering from Hansen's disease, better known as leprosy, who rely on Hawaii's Kalaupapa Settlement to take care of them could end up eating pre-delivered boxed meals instead of freshly cooked meals three days a month if food service workers are furloughed. But acting director Tim Richmond hopes his workers, who are employees of the state Department of Health, can be exempted.
"We can't just say, 'Sorry, Governor (Linda) Lingle says you don't eat today.' So we will make it happen," Richmond said. "If it means a boxed meal, nutritionally, it'll be up to standard and that will be the best we can do."
The most furious fight over targeting state jobs is in Hawaii, where Gov. Lingle (R) has proposed to help balance an additional $729 million budget shortfall on the backs of state workers. The governor plans to save $688 million by furloughing every employee for three days a month for the next two years - the country's most severe furlough measure.
The plan "allows all employees to be a part of our shared sacrifice to close this budget gap," Lingle said June 18. "This is not something I want to do, it's something I have to do." Lingle said if she cannot furlough employees, as many as 10,000 workers could be laid off.
The state's largest public employees' unions have sued to block the furloughs, saying the governor should have negotiated with them first. The court hearing will begin July 2.
In some cases, the furloughs will lead to states' losing money. Commissioner of Social Security Michael Astrue has complained that several states - including California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey and Oregon - are furloughing state employees who work in Social Security offices, even though their pay and benefits are federally funded. The money that isn't spent on their salaries will be returned to the federal government. Some governors, including Lingle and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R), say it's only fair that all workers share the pain.
The furloughs raise other questions about their benefit. Bruce Blanning, executive director of the Professional Engineers in California Government union, said the days off are forcing engineering departments to outsource work. According to Blanning, a state engineer costs California $103,000 a year, while a full-time outsourced position costs $232,000.
"It's a waste of money. The employees get shortchanged … and it costs the state a lot more," he said.
Figuring out how to implement Nevada's furloughs, which begin July 1, has been a headache for Teresa Thienhaus, the state's personnel director. For example, the furlough law says no workers can get overtime or standby pay in the same week they have a furlough day. But now agencies are asking what to do if maintenance employees who have already taken a furlough need to be on-call that same week for an emergency.
"We're still working on trying to get guidelines out that are going to be applicable to enough people to make a difference. And as soon as we do that, somebody will call and have another question and we're back to the drawing board on some other aspect," Thienhaus said. "We've not seen any light at the end of the tunnel."
Sometimes, state employees simply don't take off their furlough days. In California, where furlough days are "use them or lose them" by June 2010, about 238,000 state workers are supposed to work with supervisors to arrange two days off a month. But many employees are finding they have too much work to take furlough days. During the swine flu scare, for example, state scientists worked 16-hour days to conduct tests and keep the disease in check, said Chris Voight, the staff director of the California Association of Professional Scientists .
"The services were delivered, but that's because we represent a lot of very dedicated state scientists who are willing to do what it takes," Voight said.