Furloughs are better than possible layoffs


POSTED: Saturday, June 20, 2009

Barring court intervention, many state employees will be forced next week to begin taking off three workdays a month without pay. Their labor unions vehemently oppose Gov. Linda Lingle's edict but should appreciate the ramifications of the alternative: layoffs of thousands of their members.

Lingle has said that she will lay off as many as 2,500 of the 15,600 employees of executive departments and the offices of the governor and lieutenant governor. The alternative to three-day furloughs throughout state government would be 10,000 layoffs, but the Board of Education and the University of Hawaii regents have the alternative of either imposing layoffs or finding other ways to cut equivalent amounts from their budgets.

Furloughs would be most sensible in the Judiciary. The public defender's office reportedly is prepared to implement furloughs among its employees, including defense attorneys for indigent criminal defendants. It would be logical for the courts to close three Fridays a month, creating a backlog that can be eliminated following the economic recovery.

The Board of Education may decide at its meeting tomorrow how to deal with a budget shortfall of $226 million. Lingle has suggested that retired teachers could be asked to volunteer to return to classrooms, but shortening the school year may have to be included among the options.

The teachers' union should be amenable to apply furlough days to those when school is not in session, such as “;professional development”; and “;planning and collaboration”; days for teachers. Other changes unique to teachers' yearly work schedule also should be negotiable.

Hawaii's congressional delegation is understandably baffled by Lingle's plan to apply the furloughs to state employees whose salaries are paid entirely by the federal government. In a letter to the governor, the delegation expressed concern about her plan to furlough 36 employees and 16 medical consultants funded by the Social Security Administration under contract with the state Department of Human Services to process claims for disability benefits.

Social Security Commissioner Michael Astrue has advised Lingle that applying the furloughs to those federally-funded employees would cause Hawaii to lose $1.9 million and delay processing claims for more than 3,000 Hawaii residents over the two-year period that they are planned to be in effect.

Lingle has explained that her decision recognizes that “;employees working side by side”; should be treated equally regardless of the source of their pay. She argues that employees not “;be set apart from their brethren simply because their pay comes from a federal choice.”;

As a New York Times article on page 46 makes clear, state employees undergoing furloughs in California react differently, some working through furloughs for various reasons.