This story has so many trainwrecks that I don't know where to start...
Furloughs Begin For Calif. State Workers
California Faces Huge Budget Deficit
POSTED: 5:52 am PST February 6, 2009
UPDATED: 10:51 am PST February 6, 2009
SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- More than 200,000 state government employees were off the job Friday as California imposed its first-ever furloughs to save money during an unprecedented fiscal crisis.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger ordered employees to take two unpaid days off a month, closing most state offices, including about 180 Department of Motor Vehicles offices, the Department of Public Health and the governor's Office of Emergency Services.
State parks and unemployment centers remained open.
The days off, expected to be the first and third Fridays of each month, will trim the average state worker's salary by 9.2 percent as Schwarzenegger and lawmakers try to solve the state's $42 billion budget shortfall through June 2010, when the furloughs end. The governor projects the furloughs will save the state $1.3 billion over that period.
Rhonda Wagner, a DMV employee, said mandated furloughs are hurting workers.
"We're here to do our job," said Wagner, who was among several Service Employees International Union members protesting outside of the Sacramento DMV office Broadway in Sacramento. "We're here to work for the citizens of California, provide them with the services that they greatly need. The reason that we're not at work today is because our governor and our (legislators) hasn't done their job."
Resource: Building Closures For Furloughs
Shelia Byars, 47, a hearing officer at the DMV in downtown Los Angeles, said she would lose $200 in pay on Friday and about $400 a month. She was among about a dozen union members who protested under drizzling skies outside the office.
"It feels like we're being punished because we chose a career in state government," she said.
Byars said it didn't make sense to close DMV offices because they collect revenue for the state through licenses and registration fees.
The California furloughs began as the latest national unemployment numbers gave a fresh reminder of how quickly the recession is accelerating. The nation's employers shed 598,000 jobs in January, the highest number in 35 years. In all, 3.6 million Americans have lost their jobs since the start of the recession.
California's unemployment rate is 9.3 percent, a 15-year high.
Some state agencies considered to be revenue-generating or critical to the state were staying open, including fire stations, parks and employment centers where people can access job training services.
A handful of engineers for the state Department of Transportation also were working Friday, although they weren't being paid.
Mark Sheahan, a transportation surveyor in the department's Marysville office, said the road and infrastructure projects he works on would be set back as employees take off 16 hours a month.
"We lay asphalt and pour concrete and get people back to work," Sheahan said. "Why would you ever want to stop those things when we have a budget crisis?"
State agencies scrambled in the days before the furloughs took effect to avoid confusion for the public, such as people trying to register vehicles or obtain professional licenses.
Mark Rogers of Los Angeles said he arrived at the Department of Motor Vehicles office near the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum to pay $143 in court fines for infractions -- parking tickets and minor traffic offenses.
The 47-year-old security guard was expecting to get his license back, but the office doors were closed. Rogers said he disagreed with the decision to close state offices twice a month.
"People need jobs. People need licenses to get to their jobs," he said. "You can cut back on a lot of things, but DMVs, courthouses, jails, hospitals, these have got to stay open."
California is pursuing a strategy that also is being tried in a few other states to preserve cash as tax revenue plunges. Furloughs, pay cuts, reduced benefits or shorter work weeks for state government workers have been implemented or requested in Ohio, Maryland, Hawaii and elsewhere.
Schwarzenegger had hoped his order would apply to some 238,000 state employees, but each of the seven other constitutional officers have said they will not comply. Employees of the Legislature also are not under his authority.
Schwarzenegger's legal affairs secretary, Andrea Hoch, said the administration was prepared to sue the state controller if he did not reduce paychecks for more than 15,000 workers in the other constitutional offices, which include the attorney general, secretary of state and insurance commissioner.
A judge who affirmed Schwarzenegger's authority to order the furloughs said his ruling did not apply to constitutional officers because they were not a party to the lawsuit. The administration has maintained that employees of constitutional offices are covered by the furlough order.
Labor leaders said the furloughs could have been prevented. Jim Zamora, spokesman for SEIU, Local 1000, said the administration did not respond to the union's latest contract proposal, which he said included alternatives.
"More than a week ago, Local 1000 presented the governor's negotiators with a deal that would have prevented the closure of state offices, created an orderly, flexible and manageable furlough process, prevented chaos and saved the state hundreds of millions of dollars," Zamora said in a statement.
Lynelle Jolley, a spokeswoman for the Department of Personnel Administration, which is negotiating with the union, declined to respond.
Other employees questioned how much money the furloughs would save taxpayers.
Dan Gurule, a police officer at the state mental hospital in Norwalk, said the state would have to pay overtime at 24-hour facilities to those workers who backfill the shifts of people on furlough.
Five state mental hospitals and 33 adult prisons are required to provide constant care to patients and inmates.
"We still have to have a minimum staffing. That's going to be someone on overtime, being paid time-and-a-half," Gurule said.
But the furlough may not be all that bad for state workers.
Squaw Valley ski resort at Lake Tahoe was offering $30 lift tickets -- a $49 savings -- on furlough days to state employees who show a valid state identification card or recent pay stub. Boreal ski resort also has a promotion in which state employees can ski or snowboard every Friday for the rest of the season for $20.