Furlough Fact Vs. Fiction

State worker furloughs are back--for the moment. We say "for the moment" because of the swirls of litigation between Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and state employees that accompanied furloughs a few months ago and the new round of lawsuits that have now taken their place in the judicial arena.

But for now, state workers are scheduled to work three fewer days per month, resulting in a 14 percent pay cut and savings for cash-deprived California. But are the savings real?  And will they amount to much?

A recent study conducted for the state legislature suggests that while furloughs may seem to provide relief, the feeling may be more illusory than real.

When the Schwarzenegger administration first announced the furloughs last year, proponents promised savings of $1.66 billion over the following 16 months, reductions equivalent to 26,652 layoffs of state workers. That's hardly chump change in a state with a current deficit of $20 billion or so. Nevertheless, the benefits seem to be uneven at best. Savings may have occurred in the DMV, Department of Fish and Game, and other services agencies, but in at least one-third of the cases, particularly prisons, they have actually backfired.

There, guards just can't take off three days per month because of the nature of their jobs.

Instead, they have been asked to "bank" furloughs for some time (no one knows when) in the future. As a result, the study found that prison guard furloughs failed to produce the projected savings of $108 million between February and August of 2009.  In fact, between overtime and the temporary workers who replaced the few guards who managed to take furloughs, the study shows that costs exceeded expectations.   

Such illusory savings underscore the difficulties of calculating furlough math. By the time that delays, temporary worker salaries, and court orders are included in the mix, furloughs look a whole lot better on paper than in fact.

Meanwhile, the budget remains without agreement. And for the folks waiting at the ever-growing DMV lines, the only people they want to see furloughed are the governor and legislature--and for a lot more than three days.

None of this is to suggest that furloughs don't provide political cover for the governor--they do. Given that state leaders are so deadlocked on the budget, furloughs give the appearance that the governor is doing something to make things better. But if the prison study is any indication of furlough practices in general, the costs may well outweigh the benefits.     

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