State Workers

Making agency furloughs worth it easier said than done

Gov. Chris Gregoire (The Olympian File Photo)
Gov. Chris Gregoire (The Olympian File Photo)

Gov. Chris Gregoire's budget staffers are looking at ways to make the temporary layoffs or furloughs of state workers more orderly, shutting agencies on the same day if possible over the next year.

“She’d like to have agencies closed. I think it avoids confusion and … we save a lot of money by closing buildings,” Gregoire’s legislative and budget director Marty Brown said. He added that 10 one-day closures of agencies also provide “a little clearer message that these things do have an effect.”

But Brown also acknowledged Monday that agencies and the administration have more questions than answers about how to make the furloughs work. “It’s lots more complicated than it would appear,” Brown said.

Majority Democrats in the Senate, led by Sen. Lisa Brown of Spokane, pushed for the temporary layoffs. They argued that state workers should share in the sacrifices that taxpayers face as a result of tax increases and that recipients of state services face due to budget cuts.

House Democrats resisted the furloughs or layoffs, which are required in Senate Bill 6503 and designed to save more than $45 million in payroll costs through June 2011.

In the end, the House relented on the Senate furloughs, and the Senate relented on the House demand that the budget include an additional $65 million in general fund subsidies for employee health care. That extra health care money is supposed to be enough to protect workers against additional increases in their out-of-pocket medical costs during calendar year 2011.

Gregoire agreed with furloughs, too, and is expected to sign most – if not all – of the furlough legislation in a 2 p.m. bill-signing session today in Olympia.

The measure exempts public safety employees such as prison workers, state troopers and certain health agency workers, as well as revenue-generating employees in revenue and liquor-sales agencies. It also spells out that a certain number of cuts must come out of middle management.

But overall, just 25 percent to 30 percent of employees are affected, according to Gregoire’s Office of Financial Management. In the end, that number could be as few as 20 percent if those earning $30,000 or less a year choose to use vacation or leave time on the selected furlough days, according to Tim Welch, spokesman for the Washington Federation of State Employees.

The union represents about 40,000 state workers in general government and higher education and fought hard against the furlough measure. The use of leave by workers was added to the bill near the end of the special session, which concluded early April 13.

Welch said the union prefers to see Gregoire veto the mandatory furloughs piece of the bill. Such a veto would not prevent Gregoire from shutting down agencies, just as she was able to do with a pilot, energy-savings project that required workers at the Department of Commerce to work four 10-hour days.

But state agencies face a number of challenges putting the bill into practice.

The furlough bill lays out 10 days over the next year – and beginning July 12 – that agencies would be closed, and workers would be off work without pay. Agencies have an option of coming up with their own plans for saving the same amount of money, and that’s where Gregoire’s preference for uniformity comes in.

There also are a lot of exemptions for workers, which, according to Brown, “are in most cases very appropriate.” But it creates what he called inequities between agencies and within agencies.

Democratic Rep. Brendan Williams of Olympia said he thinks there is a risk the bill won’t save what it is designed to.

“You look at the example of Oregon and they found this thing has created more problems and costs than were anticipated,” Williams said Monday. “In some cases people have had to work overtime and bill overtime to make up for lost hours. It becomes an administrative nightmare because agencies are designed to be functional.”

Williams said agencies are designed to provide services but the furloughs raise a question whether the state will stop doing laundry at veterans’ homes or perhaps will skip other work such as processing unemployment claims at the Employment Security Department.

The Governor’s Office is aware of Oregon’s experience and concerned by it, Brown said. But he said the savings must be achieved, because Washington lawmakers reduced allocations to agencies.

“We are trying to get over the next couple weeks to see what it would take to make it work,” Brown said. “If we shut this down, what are the ramifications? Does it means the next day people have to work 10 hours? … We’re trying to be as thoughtful as we can … but it’s bumpy.”

For instance, exempted activities are spelled out in the bill. But Brown said an exemption that protects academic or classroom activities in a community college leaves unclear how much support service must be provided to allow classes to go on.