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Furloughs worry UH researchers


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POSTED: Monday, June 15, 2009

They maintain telescopes on Mauna Kea, work in state laboratories and on oceanographic research ships.

They are state workers, but their money comes from grants from the federal government and other sources outside the state.

If they are included under Gov. Linda Lingle's three-day-a-month furlough program, these researchers say, their projects will languish. And their funding sources might dry up.

The University of Hawaii brought in more than $1 billion in external funding in the past three years and a record $400 million is expected this fiscal year, according to the University of Hawaii Association of Research Investigators.

Those funds have nothing to do with the state's financial woes, yet researchers fear they will be subject to Gov. Linda Lingle's orders to take three unpaid furlough days per month.

“;How do we tell Japan we are furloughing employees at the Subaru Telescope?”; said Tom Schroeder, director of the Joint Institute for Marine and Atmospheric Research and chairman of the UH-Manoa Meteorology Department. “;How do we explain to the international community that our technicians can't maintain sea level stations that are part of the international warning system because they're on furlough?”;

Certain things can't be stopped for three days — such as checking traps with live animals or treatment of kids with cancer, noted Gary Ostrander, UH vice chancellor for research and graduate education.

“;Basically what Tom and folks are saying is if the governor is going to cut peoples' salaries by three days of furloughs each month, that's fine, but they shouldn't furlough technicians and all the people paid out of federal grants,”; said Ostrander. “;It has zero to do with the state's budget problems.”;

Instead of saving the state money, the researchers' association said, furloughing state workers paid with federal funds could cost Hawaii money because federal agencies may require some or all of the money to be returned.

Also, with projects left unfinished, federal agencies are less likely to fund new ones, which would reduce jobs, drive away skilled technicians and scientists and damage Hawaii's competitiveness for new awards, the group said.

“;These are employees hired through temporary external grants — lab technicians, field workers who remove invasive species, graduate students, seamen who run research vessels, specialized experts who manage telescopes and even researchers,”; the association said. “;These awards come with objectives, goals and deliverables set by the funders, so we spend that money to fulfill those objectives, on goods and services in the islands and to hire staff who, in turn, spend their salaries on day-to-day expenses and pay taxes. We get our work done; the islands get an economic stimulus.”;

Schroeder said his institute has about 170 people on the payroll who don't get state salaries. They're employed through the UH Research Corporation under contracts, he said.

“;We're laying the issue out that there are long-term consequences to this,”; said Schroeder, speaking for the association.

The question of extending furloughs to such state employees is being debated nationally, Schroeder said.

“;A number of universities have the problem,”; he said. “;Federal agencies haven't figured out how to respond.”;

Arizona made a distinction, requiring state employee furloughs of one or two days a month, depending on salary, but excluding those paid with federal or other non-state money, he said.

The issue hasn't been clarified in Hawaii, Ostrander said. The implication is that all state employees have to take furloughs, although 3,000 to 4,000 of those employed by the UH aren't paid by the state, he said.

“;Obviously, folks have to look at unintended consequences, what we're trying to accomplish and the objective in terms of the budget.”;