States Shave Workforce to Save Money
By Pauline Vu, Staff Writer
Last month, California sent "surplus notices" - or layoff warnings - to 20,000 state employees. Vermont's state employees union has offered to give up raises and take four unpaid work days, which the state says won't save enough money. Oregon's governor told public employees they'd have to take off 26 unpaid days over the next two years; in December, he said the number was eight.
State employees, once thought to have one of the most secure jobs with the best benefits, are increasingly worried as the recession deepens and states look to trim their salaries to balance their budgets. States are squeezing money from the workforce by freezing or reducing wages, eliminating open positions, cutting benefits, forcing employees to take unpaid leaves and laying some off.
While reminiscent of what state governments did during the last economic downturn that began in 2002, some say it's worse. "The magnitude of the problems we're seeing this time is graver," said Kerri Korpi of the Association of Federal, State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) union. "W e're seeing governments tighten their belt at the same time unemployment offices are being flooded."
The private sector is still far worse off when it comes to layoffs: In January, the nation's employers dropped 598,000 jobs, the highest number in 35 years.
But according to AFSCME, which tracks the issue through news accounts, at least 17 states have already laid off 15,433 public employees in the last 11 months, the bulk of that from when California dealt with a budget gap by letting go 10,000 part-time and temporary employees in July.
States are anticipating up to another 23,000 layoffs, according to AFSCME's tally, which doesn't include the 20,000 who received layoff warning notices in California since the state is unlikely to drop nearly that many people after it enacted a budget that closed its $41 billion deficit on Feb. 20.
Other governors' budgets are dependent on cutting positions through layoffs and attrition: 1,100 positions in Minnesota, 1,000 to 2,000 spots in Pennsylvania, and 1,300 in Missouri, for example.
"We will cut nearly $200 million from overhead by eliminating these positions and cutting bureaucracy," Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon (D) said in his state of the state address Jan. 27. "Make no mistake, I value our state workers, and these cuts will not be easy."
The federal stimulus money coming to states is helping some roll back planned layoffs. Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) had warned that the state would lay off 700 workers, but later said the stimulus could help avert that. Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell (D) said the extra money means his state can avoid further layoffs. According to an analysis by the Education Commission on the States, stimulus dollars will create or save the jobs of 267,000 teachers and 40,000 teachers' aides nationwide.
But the money isn't enough to completely cover states' deficits, and governments are still planning to impose cost-cutting measures on the state workforce.
Dwarfing the layoff figures is the number of people being furloughed; so far at least 16 states have forced employees to take time off without pay, saying that option could stave off layoffs. Just among Arizona, California, Georgia and Maryland, well over 355,000 people have already taken unpaid leave, while Pennsylvania could soon add another 78,000 and New Jersey another 80,000 to that tally.
New Jersey 's governor says state workers have to take unpaid days off or risk layoffs, Ohio's largest state workers' union has tentatively agreed for its members to take 10 unpaid days and Oregon's governor is telling the state employees' union that workers will have to take 26 days off in the current and next fiscal years.
California is the leader in furloughing; about 238,000 state workers are being forced to take off the first and third Fridays of each month, known as "Furlough Fridays." The days off, which began in February and are slated to continue until mid-2010, amount to a 9.3 percent pay cut.
State employees at around-the-clock facilities, such as prisons, can choose what days they take off, but according to a California Correctional Peace Officers Association spokesman, the shortage of prison guards means that guards can't take furloughs. So most state prison guards still work their usual hours - at the same time their pay is cut.
"In essence, our members are working for free," said the association's Lance Corcoran. "We still have 160,000 inmates and we're going to continue to have inmates. The reality is, their doors need to be open, they need to be fed, they need to be supervised."
Corcoran, who is also a state correctional officer, says his reduced salary is affecting his family. "I'm looking at the potential of losing my home, we're cutting costs everywhere we can … As state employees, not only are we getting the reduction in pay, we're subject to a higher income tax, higher sales tax , so it's a double-whammy for us," he said.
Public universities have also been hit hard by budget cuts. All 2,995 Utah State University employees will take an unpaid leave during spring break, while Arizona State University is furloughing all 12,000 of its employees for at least 10 days by June 30.
Some of the high-profile university employees that states are furloughing for stretches ranging from days to a few weeks include the football and basketball coaches at Arizona State, Utah State, Iowa State and the University of Maryland. Courts aren't faring much better. Most of the Iowa court system's 1,600 employees took a day off last month and will have to take another seven days off, while Utah's 1,000 court workers may have to take 26 unpaid days off. Florida is laying off 280 out of its 3,100 court employees. The lack of personnel has contributed to a delay in court services.
Other state services are affected as well. California's first two Furlough Fridays resulted in the closing of Department of Motor Vehicle offices across the state. Arizona's social welfare department will find it tougher to provide services after budget cuts led to 9,000 employees being furloughed and 700 laid off.
"We will not be able to investigate all potential risk child abuse and neglect reports," department spokeswoman Liz Barker Alvarez wrote in an e-mail. The personnel cuts will also lead to "a reduction in our timeliness providing other services."