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 Stateline.org 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.