Furloughs are not long-term budget solution

While it was necessary to bridge a budget gap, the practice will put strain on state employees and services.

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State government's temporary layoffs - euphemistically referred to as furloughs - remain a point of contention between state officials and leaders of the employees' unions.

While we continue to believe the Legislature made the right call in ordering furloughs to deal with the 2010 budget crisis, we are convinced this approach is not a long-term solution to financial stability.

To save an estimated $73 million over the next year, the Legislature this spring authorized 10 days of unpaid leave for most employees between July and next June.

Last week Gov. Chris Gregoire's budget office issued a report stating the one day of unpaid leave in July did not cause a rise in overtime costs. The Office of Financial Management found state government cut its overtime costs in July by almost $1.1 million compared with the same month a year ago. Agencies spent nearly $10.1 million in overtime in July - the first month of the furloughs. Overtime costs for that month were also $244,102 less than in June, according to OFM.

The Washington Federation of State Employees dispute the figures and is planning on doing an audit of its own.

The union had expected overtime costs would soar. When Oregon tried furloughs to cut costs it backfired. Overtime costs at prisons and agencies that provide essential services around the clock devoured the furlough savings.

Washington state exempted critical public safety workers from the one-day layoffs, which likely accounts for the positive results of the state review.

Given the dire financial situation the state faced because of the drop in tax collections, it was reasonable for lawmakers to impose the 10 furlough days as a stop-gap measure.

But the strategy has some serious downsides.

The savings from the furloughs has essentially been built into the budget, which means that to avoid layoffs during the next two-year budget cycle even more revenue will have to be collected to cover the wages to restore the furlough days.

If the cash isn't available then lawmakers will have to order more unpaid furlough days or layoffs. Neither is a particularly good option.

Layoffs hurt individual families and add to the state's economic woes. The loss of employees reduces the state's ability to provide necessary services.

Furloughs, while certainly better than the loss of permanent jobs, do create a strain on employees. The loss of income does hurt. But even more glaring is the added pressure for employees on the job. It will also impact the public.

State workers must delay work to accommodate the furlough days. That can usually be done with relative ease once or twice but when it occurs month after month serious problems in delivering state services will occur.

Furloughs are a temporary patch, not the long-term answer, to a sustainable state budget.

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