DOC plan for unpaid leave beats layoffs

It is important to have sufficient staffing at the Washington State Penitentiary to maintain a safe environment for staff and inmates.

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The economic downturn has been particularly tough on state employees. A great many have had to forgo pay raises while being asked to do more with less. And those are among the lucky ones. Many have lost their jobs.

State government has been forced to make deep cuts, and more are on the way. The Legislature mandated state offices close for 10 days throughout the next year with employees taking unpaid leave for those days. The various departments and agencies don't have to shut down on those 10 days if they come up with an alternative plan to reach the savings goal.

Last week, Department of Corrections officials decided to move forward with the unpaid-leave or furlough plan rather than cutting costs through a combination of layoffs, furloughs and salary reductions.

Now this is particularly tricky with the Department of Corrections as prisons can't be shut down for even a single day. The DOC operates around the clock 365 days a year.

This means many DOC employees will be exempt from this order. Others, such as those in offices, won't. State agencies will treat these 10 days like holidays, albeit unpaid ones.

This plan is being met with resistance by state employees across the state.

Austin Jenkins of the Northwest News Network reported last week the plan to furlough state employees is turning into an ugly fight between the governor's office and state employee unions. State workers are resisting orders and the employees' unions are poised for battle. Union officials question whether the state will save the $40 million it anticipates. Union officials point to other states, such as Oregon, where overtime chewed up the furlough savings, Jenkins reports.

If Washington's plan isn't implemented with regard to the consequences, it could be - as the old saying goes - penny wise and pound foolish.

But it appears state officials understand the importance of finding real savings with the least disruption to the lives of employees. Eldon Vail, Department of Corrections chief, clearly does.

"I realize this will significantly impact those who are not exempt from the law," Vail wrote in a memo dated June 2. "This comes at a time when we're closing prisons and a year after our community corrections caseload was reduced by nearly 10,000 offenders. The good news, if there is any, is that these are temporary layoffs that will expire in one year and not permanent layoffs."

While we understand the hardship this pay cut - and that's exactly what it is - will be for employees, it is far better than forcing permanent layoffs. Cutting staff makes it difficult to continue to provide the same level of service to the public. At a prison, insufficient staffing can create dangerous situations for staff members as well as inmates.

Given the alternatives, DOC officials are taking the least objectionable course.

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