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Furlough Fridays: A Thing Of The Past

by Susannah Kopecky, published

Friday, March 6 marked the last mandatory furlough day for tens of thousands of state workers in California, according to the Sacramento Bee and MarketWatch. Now, the next time Californians walk into a state office, such as the DMV, on a Friday, it most likely will not be closed.

Before the legislature passed the latest budget, Gov. Schwarzenegger threatened various actions to alleviate impending budget problems. After issuing an Executive Order instructing more than 200,000 state employees to take two unpaid vacation days, the governor was met with a hew and cry, but workers were forced to take off the furlough days.

It was hoped that the two unpaid days would save around $1 billion in expenses which otherwise would have to be paid by the state government, which is currently running a deficit of about $40 billion.

The furloughs lasted from February 6 to March 6, on the first Friday and the third Friday of the month. The experiment only lasted for one month, incidentally, and may have been worth more as a scare tactic (to scare the legislature into passing a budget) than as a feasible, cost-saving opportunity.

After the brief experiment of sorts, it has now been determined by the governor that instead of mandatory unpaid vacation days on Friday, all state workers will still have to take off two days of work per month, but those days simply do not have to be specific Fridays. The new directive promotes the individual "self-directed" selection of furlough days. And like a snowflake, it is surely assumed that each worker's selection will be new and original.

Perhaps the change of heart had something to do with the recent announcement that California will probably receive somewhere around $50 billion from the federal stimulus bill, (as judged by the California Budget Project). It also appears this change is coming at least partially as a result of union displeasure.

The change is still subject to an agreement between both the unions fighting the furloughs and the California legislature. The order issuing the furlough instructions is set to extend for another 15 months, through to June 2010.

There have been ongoing negotiations with a number of state employee unions in California. At the outset, at least two unions threatened to strike if forced to take the unpaid vacation days. Currently, Schwarzenegger is said to be in talks with one of the sizable state unions, the Service Employees International Union Local 1000, to change the amount of furlough days per month from two days to only one day.

Executive Order S-16-08 was issued on December 19, 2008 and ordered that "effective February 1, 2009 through June 30, 2010, the Department of Personnel Administration shall adopt a plan to implement a furlough of represented state employees and supervisors for two days per month, regardless of funding source. This plan shall include a limited exemption process." Remember again, the official reason behind the furlough was to reduce spending and "immediately improve the State's ability to meet its obligations to pay for essential services of the State."

This was one of a number of measures designed to start saving money as the state coffers drew emptier and the state had already "halt lending money for an estimated 2,000 infrastructure projects as a result of the cash crisis." Other threats looming included the state giving out IOUs rather than checks, and the possibly closure of the state government, if there was not enough money to run the system.

On Februrary 20, Schwarzenegger signed the budget, which was at long last agreed to by the California Legislature. Perhaps the true purpose of the furlough program was to shock some Californians into realizing the depth and magnitude of the state's debt, as many, particularly in the representative government, did not appear to understand the importance of agreeing to a solid budget and plotting out a future path. Before his tenure as the state's highest executive, Schwarzenegger was a professional entertainer, and was well-versed in shocking his audiences and keeping up the adrenaline. Well played, sir, well played.

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