Monday, February 22, 2010

To furlough or not to furlough

Government furlough days are in the local news again, with a report in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on Saturday that Milwaukee County may consider up to 10 additional required days off without pay this year for certain employees. But Milwaukee County isn't the only place where furloughs have become a key budget-cutting strategy.

Governing Magazine columnist Girard Miller recently wrote that "furlough fever" has taken hold across the nation, as state and local governments struggle to respond to budget problems without resorting to permanent layoffs. In light of this trend, he asks what will happen if scores of government workers are forced to work four-day weeks and the public doesn't notice?

The question is especially pertinent given that the extreme fiscal pressures facing state and local governments in Wisconsin and nationally are unlikely to ease any time soon, despite indications of economic recovery. In light of that reality, if public officials sense that government furlough days are met with a shrug from taxpayers, it certainly will be tempting for some to view them as an appropriate annual budget-cutting strategy.

Whether that's a good thing or a bad thing from the perspective of ordinary citizens depends, of course, on the number and applicability of furlough days. Here in Wisconsin, furlough policies include the City of Milwaukee's four scheduled furlough days in 2010 for most city employees (certain public safety personnel only are subject to two days); the State of Wisconsin's 16 furlough days over two years for non-emergency personnel; and Milwaukee County's current 12 furlough days in 2010 for most workers (employees who work for certain Constitutional officers, such as the sheriff and register of deeds, are among those exempted).

This is relevant because citizens may not notice if their city human resources office is closed for a few days. Conversely, they may care more if their Division of Motor Vehicles office is closed for several days, and they likely would care a lot if their state university classes are cancelled or their local fire station is closed for even a day or two.

Another key question is the extent to which furlough days - while producing savings on paper - truly save actual dollars. An article from points out some of the practical fiscal impacts of furlough days that may reduce their ability to generate real savings - including the potential need to replace employee work time lost to furloughs with more expensive contracted work time; the loss of productivity from government workers whose job it is to collect revenue for the government; and the potential need to pay time-and-a-half for overtime to ensure that critical services continue in the face of furloughs. This latter factor contributed to Milwaukee County's decision to exempt sheriff's department personnel from furloughs.

It also is important to consider the impact of furloughs on the effective functioning of government. As a former government administrator, I know one of the most difficult parts of the job - particularly when budgets are tight - is motivating staff and battling poor morale. What does it say to government workers when their leaders find their daily tasks so inconsequential that they require them to stay home for several days each year?

Finally, a more subtle impact is the types of tasks that will be ignored should more than a few furlough days per year become the norm. When positions are cut or hours are shortened, the first tasks that fall off the shelf for short-handed government departments are tasks like quality assurance, preventive maintenance, performance measurement and research-based problem solving. Are government leaders really doing themselves and their constituents a favor by risking that such activities don't get done?

It can be argued that as a short-term strategy to help offset temporary recession-induced budgetary problems, or as a response to unanticipated mid-year budget crises, furloughs may make a great deal of sense. But public officials who might be contemplating furloughs as a longer term strategy would do well to carefully cost out and deliberate the full range of impacts.

1 comment:

Black Eyed Gurl said...

As a state employee who is currently bound to furloughs I can tell you one thing: They hurt.

I did the math. I am losing roughly 2 and a half months worth of $$ I need to pay my bills in two years. That's money I can't put back into the economy, that's money I don't have to go out with friends, or take a vacation (even though I have nearly 4 weeks of vacation time, with which I supposed I will clean my apartment).

What also hurts? I am making less money today than when I started 5 years ago fresh out of school. Between inflation, cost of living, a tanking economy, furloughs and the fact that I haven't gotten a raise larger than 15 cents per year in the last two years, I am poor. I mean really poor. No one seemed to take into account that the people at the bottom of the employment spectrum would lose the most. If I had a kid, I'd qualify for food stamps and public assistance. Wrap your head around that.

There is a reason 85% of my coworkers have 2 jobs! TWO JOBS!! I work for the damn crime lab, these are people who are solving crimes and getting criminals off the street and they have to work as waiters, janitors, and retail clerks on their weekends and evenings to make ends meet.

I understand that without furloughs some of my fellow employees would have lost their jobs, but as with most state agencies, we have a lot of people retiring out of the system. Which means several things: without their higher salaries, we will have $$, BUT because of furloughs and the current pitiful rate of pay, we have trouble attracting quality applicants to replace them, and thus we become more inefficient and consequently cost even more $$.

In other words: in the short term, furloughs save money, in the long term they are going to hurt us all a lot.