One state worker’s take on the forced furloughs

Gov. Schwarzenegger’s latest round of forced furloughs affects more than 150,000 state government employees. We see numerous stories about the furloughs, the state’s budget problems and the politics of the Capitol, but we don’t often see how the unpaid days off affect individual workers. Gov. Schwarzenegger has said that state workers haven’t felt the level of economic pain that those in the private sector have felt. We thought we’d talk to a state worker about that. This is Angela Ramirez’s story.

In what capacity do you work for the state?
I’m a motor vehicle technician for the DMV. I answer phones for the public.

Do you feel this is a good job?
It’s a very challenging job. We’ve got definitely a lot more callers coming in than we have workers. We’re doing a lot of analytical work with the records and so forth, reinstating and taking away drivers’ privileges. I know many of us have been looking for salary increases and instead we got furloughs.

How has the furlough affected you?

It’s been very, very difficult. We’ve got angry customers that are very frustrated because now, what generally would take a five-to-seven day process has turned into two weeks or sometimes longer. They’re angry because they’re waiting for a driver’s license.  They’re angry because we haven’t processed their paperwork. The offices are closed, so they can’t go in and get their license when they need to get it. The frustration that was there before has just been increased. We know there’s revenue there that could be generated, but is not being collected [because of the furloughs]. We know there’s nothing good coming out of the furloughs at all.

Many of the workers that I work with have lost their homes or they had to downsize to smaller apartments or something not so expensive. Some have had their cars impounded. I’m personally trying to avoid foreclosure. It’s been really sad. Many of us who had any kind of savings [have lost them]. Even the higher income bracket workers have been impacted where they had to exhaust any kind of savings and many people are living off of credit cards. I personally took some time to review my credit from the beginning of the furloughs to this point and it’s dropped dramatically. I had to make all kinds of arrangements with collectors and it’s been a very, very difficult time. Initially, when we were first impacted by this, it was a big blow to my budget. I was scrambling around to try and make end’s meet and I ended up in the food line at least twice in the last year.

Do you have any hope that the budget will be passed soon, ending the furloughs?
What we hear on the news is very disheartening. It sounds like neither the Democrats or the Republicans want to budge. It’s scary because it’s not just us. I look at other agencies that rely on the state budget, and programs that affect children and disabled people, that are being hurt by this. I’m very disappointed in our political leadership and the governor for not being able to resolve this earlier and forcing us to deal with this crisis. People’s lives are on the line. We’re losing vital programs. I don’t know how I’m going to solve my mortgage with an IOU. What I have been able to work out as far as payments to my credit card companies, I’m at risk of losing that if I get an IOU. I’m just not sure what I’m going to do.

Do you think the state Supreme Court’s ruling on the furloughs might mark them as illegal, and end them that way?

I hope that they can make sense out of this because this situation hasn’t made any sense at all. When I look at furloughs and the governor’s justifications for the furloughs, they’re full of holes. He justified it as saving money when [the furloughs are negatively] impacting agencies that are actually generating revenue. I took some time to go out to the field offices the first time we were furloughed and when the offices were shut down. People were driving by, wanting to drop off money, and go and pay their registration, taking time off of work to take care of business with the DMV. I don’t see how [the furlough’s]brought any cost savings to the state, particularly when we go into these stalemates over the budget and we’re actually going further into the deficit. There should have been more constructive planning on how to generate money for California.

I don’t see why it’s wrong to have a job that has a decent pension plan. What’s wrong with that? What’s wrong with making California an attractive place to work? We definitely, I think, provide quality work. Our workers are dedicated to providing a service to our customers. The population of California is growing. The number of people we’re serving is growing and we’re not able to do the hiring or put programs in place to adequately serve the public. I hope our Supreme Court can see that there are definitely loopholes in the justification for the furloughs. It’s a ploy, and [the governor] is using it as a political statement to attack state workers.

I was proud to be a state worker and to have a decent wage. It was something I would encourage somebody else to do. But now I’m scared that we’ll soon be workers without a pension, without a sick plan, without a decent wage. And that makes it more difficult for us to put money back into the economy, to buy a home, to buy a car. Any of those things that supposedly make up the American Dream, it will be more difficult for us to achieve.

Would you prefer minimum wage to the furlough?
Absolutely not. Many of us have set up our lives on the income that we have, and if it was dropped to minimum wage, than many of us would be homeless. We would be living in a tent. We would not be able to afford the payments we have for housing.  

How do you feel about SEIU Local 1000’s efforts to protest the furloughs?
I think the efforts have been good. I know there have been a lot of legal battles and I’m glad that they’ve stood their ground and challenged the governor. It was great to get one paycheck that was a full paycheck. Many state workers saw some relief and were disappointed when it was retracted and we were back on furloughs again. I applaud the work that SEIU is doing. It’s been a very difficult battle and we’re in a war to protect our pensions, to protect our salaries and to protect future workers for civil service in the state of California.

How are you planning to spend your Furlough Friday?

I spend my Furlough Fridays talking to my creditors and filling out paperwork for my mortgage company to maintain my house. I spend my Furlough Fridays looking at how I might make some outside income. It’s difficult to do anything when you have time off, if you have less pay. At least, that’s how I spend my time.

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