September 2, 2009

Workers Adjust To The New F-word: Furloughs

"Furlough Fridays" for John Krumm may as well be called "Food Bank Fridays."

Along with 210,000 fellow state government workers, the driver and safety clerk for the Department of Motor Vehicles is helping California balance its battered budget by taking an unpaid day off from work three Fridays each month. But he's not going to Project Open Hand's kitchen to volunteer. "I go to save money and get food for my table," says Krumm, describing a still-life tableau of his furlough handout:

"Couple pieces of chicken. Some fruits and vegetables. Beans, milk and cheese. I'm losing $450 each month from my paycheck, so I'm watching every penny," he says. "And if they make us take off any more days, I won't be able to afford my rent."

As private and public employers seek to whittle overhead while skirting the heavier costs of laying off and rehiring staff, millions of workers are being poked and prodded with America's hottest management tool.

"Furloughs make sense because if you have a good employee, you want to do whatever you can to keep them," says labor lawyer Michael S. Bernick, former head of California's Employment Development Department under Gov. Gray Davis. "But while they may help reduce layoffs, they have their other side — for most workers, taking a 10 to 20 percent pay cut is a big hit."

Furloughs can also create huge workload backups as well as raise sticky legal questions for employers who try to force exempt workers into unpaid leaves. And critics like San Francisco State University professor John Sullivan say the management tool could actually end up causing more workplace problems than they solve. "If you cut everyone's pay," he says, "you'll drive away your top performers and end up with mediocre people."

Cost-cutting tool

As the new F-word makes the rounds of the water-cooler and cocktail-party circuit, it seems everyone from autoworkers to bridge inspectors to newspaper reporters is being forced to take unpaid leave as companies try to stay afloat and governments slash budgets. Firm numbers are hard to come by, according to economist Stephen Levy, who says that in the private sector, at least, "as long as sales start to pick up slightly, we're probably at the peak of layoffs and furloughs right now."

But in an economy where 6.7 million jobs have disappeared since the recession began in December 2007, and as private wages and salaries continue to fall each month, no one's betting against the prospect of more furloughs. In fact, 6 percent of employers surveyed by the consulting firm Watson Wyatt Worldwide say they will force mandatory furloughs within the next 12 months, while nearly one in 10 of those asked say they expect to implement a shortened workweek over the same time frame.

And while nearly half the state governments have instituted or proposed furloughs, it may have been California's historic embrace that moved them onto the front page. In addition to planned layoffs, California hopes to save $3 billion over 17 months by sending home state employees the first three Fridays of each month. With the Department of Personnel Administration using the tool for the first time to bridge its gaping deficit, spokeswoman Lynelle Jolley says furloughs were the best fix for a dire situation.

"With the state in a precarious position, we needed to conserve cash immediately," she says. "The layoff process can be quite lengthy, but with furloughs we can achieve savings immediately. We were desperate."

State governments seem to be taking a page from industries like heavy manufacturing and airlines, which historically have furloughed employees when business slowed. In Silicon Valley, temporary shutdowns have been a common practice, often a year-end tradition at many high-tech firms.

Mark Perry, a computer programmer with 30 years' experience in the valley, says state workers are now "getting a taste of real life that we've known for years in tech. They've been sort of sheltered. "I was with Intel, Fairchild, 23 different companies, and I was furloughed at about half of them until business turned around," says Perry, laid off in 2003 from Applied Materials. "The first time it's a bit of a shock, because you depend on a certain amount of income. But gradually you learn to treat it like you're on a pretend vacation. You kind of expect it and build it into the salary you think you're making. "Furloughs," Perry says, "train you not to live paycheck to paycheck."

Beats a layoff, but "...

A lot of affected employees are conflicted: Having a job is great — but taking a pay cut to keep that job stinks. First-timers like John Krumm are struggling with furlough shock. "I think it's a shame," says Krumm, who works at a San Francisco branch of the DMV. "You've already cut our pay by 14 percent, and if you add another day, you're up to 18 percent. People working here will now be making less than they made when they started 10 years ago."

For a couple employed by the state, the furloughs can be devastating. Krumm says "a lot of my colleagues at the DMV are filing for bankruptcy. A lot of them have a partner or husband who works for the state," which is a double whammy for the family budget.

While most experts stress the positive impacts of furloughs over layoffs, no one says they're a panacea. They punish lower-paid workers disproportionately; they can torpedo workplace morale; and workers whose pay has been cut make for lousy consumers, saving more and spending less, hampering a quick economic recovery.

Forced to downsize by his boss to a three-day workweek, San Jose real estate professional William Huey says his furlough threw him off kilter, "because I'd had this structured routine and suddenly everything changed. On my days off, I had to think, 'What am I supposed to be doing today?' "

Even though his three days eventually turned into a layoff, Huey does see some benefits to mandatory time off. "In retrospect,'' says Huey, who used his forced leave to help his wife start a private Chinese-language school, "it was as if I'd been allowed to leave my job gradually, because having that time off gives you the chance to explore other ideas you may want to try. The furlough,'' he says, "was like the severance package I never got in the end."

Hard choices

Yet for Rick Binger, furloughs became a powerful if painful management tool to save his San Francisco catalog marketing firm and, he hopes, will ensure that his six staffers all have jobs when the recession recedes. In February, faced with a virtual collapse of his business, Binger had his employees take a month off without pay. When new business didn't materialize, the furlough grew even longer until work picked up and employees started coming back to their jobs in July.

"I told everyone I was really sorry, but I just didn't have any work so there was no income coming in," he says. "My hands were tied. Everyone sacrificed, and I think they knew that as hard as this was, it was better than being laid off."

The use of furloughs, says Binger, "enabled me to survive over those four months." Others, though, say furloughs create more problems than they fix. Sullivan, of San Francisco State University, is not only a passionate critic of the practice, but he's now being forced to take a furlough himself as part of the college system's efforts to cut costs.

"I ask employers, 'Why are you doing furloughs?' and they say, 'Because the other guy is,' " he says. "But they're a fad and they don't really save money. It's the poorly managed companies that use them, not places like Microsoft or Google."

Sullivan says the smarter route would be better planning, a greater push for productivity gains — and the corner-office fortitude to let heads roll. "Managers are chicken to make the tough decision and let you go. But that's what a great manager does."

"When you cut time and not workload," he says, "you've really compounded the problem you had to begin with." Just ask Krumm. DMV offices on Monday mornings after a Friday furlough have been described on online forums as a circuslike crush of humanity, with drivers lined up out the door to reach clerks whose workloads have been stacking up since Thursday. "After a while,'' Krumm says, "they have to stop people from coming in the door because otherwise we'd be in violation of the fire code."


Although the actual number of furloughs is hard to come by, one national survey of employers found some interesting statistics:

» 17 percent of employers surveyed in April said they had initiated mandatory furloughs, up from 11 percent the previous month.

» Nearly one in 10 employers expect to implement a shortened workweek within the next 12 months.

» Another 6 percent will force mandatory furloughs.

» 9 percent say they"ll have voluntary furloughs.

» 7 percent have cut workers" salaries.

Source: Watson Wyatt Worldwide

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California state government workers, Department of Motor Vehicles, unpaid day off, Project Open Hand's, furlough, Michael S. Bernick, California's Employment Development Department, Gov. Gray Davis, San Francisco State University, John Sullivan,

Posted via email from Global Business News


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