Some workers embrace idea of Friday furloughs

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s plan to furlough state workers two days a month has been a hard sell. Constitutional officers and legislative leaders have pledged not to go along, and unions have filed a lawsuit to block the move.

If they are forced to take the time off—and the nearly 10 percent pay cut that goes with it—there is one part of the plan that at least some state workers say they could be okay with: all of state government taking the same Friday off. One intent is to allow the state to close entire buildings, saving on heating, cooling and security.

But some state workers say there could be another benefit: actually being able to take the time off. One common story among state workers is taking a day off, and then spending the day on email and Blackberry while their coworkers keep working.

“If everyone has different days off, there are things you’ll be missing that will be substantive to your job,” said Hattie Hanley, a health policy advisor with the Department of Managed Health Care. “If everybody got the same day off, it would really assist in not getting a cut without any cut in workload.”

Hanley said that she lived through a similar furlough period in 2003 under the Gray Davis administration. Back then, she said, she ended up banking the days off, and was eventually able to take the time. But she said she wasn’t actually able to take the time off when it was intended. These thoughts were echoed by some other state workers, but most asked not to be named.

The two-day a month furlough plan would save $1.3 billion over the next 18 months, said the Governor’s chief spokesman, Aaron McLear. Making everyone take the same Fridays off is built into this savings, he said.

“By doing this uniformly, we’re able to realize savings by shutting down entire facilities on those two days,” McLear said. But he said quality of life for state workers also played into the calculations: “We wanted to make sure that if we had to go a couple days without pay, they actually had the day off.”

The furlough plan was done in consultation with department heads. McLear noted that the governor originally proposes a single Friday off each month in his November budget proposal, but the budget situation has grown much worse due to inaction since then.

“It came down to what makes the most sense for both the employees and the state,” said Lynelle Jolley, a spokeswoman for the Department of Personnel Administration. “Bear in mind, we’re not the first jurisdiction that has ever done furloughs. There were some ideas out there we could draw from.”

The entire furlough plan remains in doubt, pending a lawsuit by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 1000, which represents thousands of state workers. The SEIU argues that their contract demands that such a furlough program would have to be negotiated with the union, and cannot be unilaterally imposed by the Governor. There is a court hearing scheduled for January 29. In the meantime, the state’s constitutional officers, led by Lt. Governor John Garamendi and controller John Chiang, has called the furlough plan illegal and said they won’t abide by it.

State employee unions have generally sought more flexible time off programs. SEIU Local 1000 spokesman Jim Zamora would not comment on the popularity of the Friday shutdown plan over more flexible options, saying it is a moot point until the lawsuit is decided.  
“We’re not sure how the whole furlough thing is going to play out,” Zamora said. “We really think we have a good shot at beating this in court.”

The furlough plan is one of several cutbacks involving state workers proposed by the governor to help bridge the $42 billion gap the state faces over the next 18 months. One calls for the elimination of Columbus Day and Lincoln’s birthday from the 14 state holidays state workers get each year—tied for highest in the nation. This would save an estimate $116 million. Changes in overtime and a list of consolidation options would save an estimated $156 million over one year.

For her part, Hanley said imposing the furlough on uniform Fridays could have the added benefit of increasing revenues, and therefore tax receipts, at the Sierra ski slopes near Sacramento. As a resident of Auburn, she sees the “utter hell” of traffic trying to get home each Friday during ski season.

“I’m not for the furlough, but my personality is I always see the silver lining in anything,” she said.

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