State Workers

State workers shun furloughs

Employees of states from Hawaii to Wisconsin have been asked to take time off without pay.

Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire says state workers are interested in taking furloughs rather than facing layoffs. So far, however, unpaid days off are not being used much.

Working to cut $4.5 billion from the state’s two-year budget, lawmakers at one time had included specific budget instructions to pursue furloughs to defray job losses.

But state worker unions asked for more leeway, and the instructions were dropped.

The union concerns, the people-power needs of state programs and the size of some of the cuts being made have kept furloughs to a minimum in Washington.

“My goal is to try and work with labor, and ask if people will voluntarily step up with furloughs and other things so that we can maybe avoid some of these layoffs,” Gregoire said recently.

Although unpaid time off, voluntary or otherwise, will not prevent all the layoffs expected, the governor said agencies should look for alternatives to reducing their workforce.

“I’ve asked them to be creative. People can take a sabbatical, as far as I’m concerned,” she said. “I think the ideas need to generate up from the employees. The e-mails I’ve received are people saying, ‘I’m willing to take X off if it will save a colleague’s job.’”

Agencies that have implemented furloughs include the Senate and House, which have 700 employees to support lawmakers.

“We have to lay off fewer people because of the furloughs,” said Chief Clerk of the House Barbara Baker.

“We had a huge response,” she added. “We’re requiring 40 hours of furlough time, but we received the equivalent of 4,200 additional hours (volunteered). That’s allowed us to save … between four and six or seven jobs.”

Unions do not represent House staff members, but they do include many employees in agencies that answer to the governor.

“We haven’t seen any agency yet propose furloughs. But our members have mixed feelings,” Washington Federation of State Employees spokesman Tim Welch said.

His union is the largest in state government, and Welch said its members are working with management on an agency-by-agency basis. While some workers might be able to stave off job cuts with furloughs, they won’t work elsewhere, he said.

“We’re pleasantly surprised at management’s willingness to really squeeze budgets before eliminating positions,” he added.

Under union contracts, agencies can lay off workers without negotiation. However, they must come to terms with the union over how those layoffs will affect remaining workers.

“We are seeing, once you get down to office and local agencies, folks can really start talking about things we know best, and folks can start mitigating these cuts,” Welch said.

The union still expects “probably thousands” of layoffs statewide, he added.

The Department of Fish and Wildlife has already acted to eliminate 163 positions and faces a $30 million reduction over the next two years.

Furloughs were considered last fall, but unions had concerns and the budget was rapidly deteriorating, said Joe Stor, deputy director for agency operations.

Unpaid time off offers short-term savings, but the agency is facing long-term reductions in funding, he said.

“The general fund budget shortfall for us seemed to be growing at such a rate, it might have been useful if there was some known amount (of needed cuts),” Stor said. “But it frankly continues to look like this is going to be a continuing problem.”

For furloughs to be effective at saving money, many people have to take time off, Department of Labor and Industries spokesman Steve Pierce said.

“In the process of dealing with the cutbacks in our general fund programs, we did look at it and come to realize that you’d have to have furloughs in a huge quantity for a very long length of time to really have an impact,” he said. “At this point at L&I, it just doesn’t make sense.”

In other situations, furloughs have been judged to be impractical because of the demand for the available workers.

They haven’t been seriously discussed for staff members inside state prisons, said Leonard Smith of Teamsters Local 117, which represents those employees.

“How are you going to do that? The same number of beds, less officers? It’s not a place where you can do more with less,” Smith said.

Adam Wilson: 360-753-1688