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OP-ED | Let the Furloughs Fly

by | Oct 9, 2015 8:00am
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Posted to: Analysis, The Economy, Jobs, Labor, Opinion, State Budget, Taxes, State Capitol

Connecticut’s state employees were largely spared the ax during this past year’s agonizing budget negotiations — but that may be about to change.

Legislative Democrats are reeling from cuts Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s made to next year’s budget in order to get us out of a sudden deficit, which included slashing funding for hospitals, homeless shelters, and mental health services, among other seemingly necessary things. They’ve been putting together a list of alternative cuts, though so far the governor doesn’t seem all that interested. Talk of a special session has gone nowhere.

But now some Democrats, such as state Sen. Beth Bye, D-West Hartford, co-chair of the Appropriations Committee, are talking about passing some of the pain on to state employees. “Furloughs for non-unionized employees are on the table, and are part of an overall package of potential cost savings that some members of the committee are considering,” Bye said.

Republicans, though, want to go much further. They have been calling for a special session to craft a better budget, and say that furloughs for non-unionized employees would not nearly close the current gap.

And of course, they’re right — not even a large number of furlough days for that group of employees would make much of a dent in the deficit. Plus, it’s hardly fair to punish non-union employees while leaving their unionized counterparts alone.

As for the unions, they’re not going to go along with any furlough plan right now, especially as they’re busy negotiating employee salaries with the governor.

That doesn’t mean they won’t happen anyway. Is that a good thing for the state?

The answer is unsurprisingly complicated. Furloughs, or unpaid, forced days off, are a favorite way for both companies and governments to cut costs without having to resort to layoffs. On the face of it, this is a good thing — workers get to keep their jobs while the company or government saves some money. Everyone comes out a winner.

Well, sort of.

First, even if furloughs are staggered to try and keep agencies open, there will still be just as much work for fewer people to do. That’s going to be awful for employee morale and all but guarantee that government services will be a lot less useful than before. Imagine, for instance, going to the DMV and finding only one station open and a line several hours long waiting to speak to the stressed-out, exhausted clerk.

Secondly, they don’t actually save as much money as promised — since it’s not just employees that are affected, but their families and the businesses they use. There’s a ripple effect through the whole economy, and since government revenue depends on the economy being strong, that ends up costing even more in the long run.

In fact, a study out at Berkeley looked at furlough days in California during the worst of the recession and found that though the state government saved over $2 billion in wages, they only managed a measly $236 million in net savings total thanks to lost tax revenue, higher costs, less money in the economy, and continuing losses over the next few years.

That leaves salary reductions and layoffs as possible ways to deal with the budget crisis (employee health care and benefits are locked in until 2022). However, those actions carry the same risks — money will be saved, but at the cost of morale, increased workload if there are fewer workers, and lost tax revenue and statewide negative economic effects.

So what do you do when all your choices are bad ones? I suspect Gov. Malloy will try to spread the pain around some, but that might make the problem worse.

Like I said last week, the state budget is in for some very rough years, and the usual tinkering with taxing and spending may not do much more than postpone the real problems for a while.

Until we do find a permanent fix to the ongoing fiscal crisis, state employee unions are going to come under tremendous pressure from both Republicans and Democrats to forgo salary increases, take furlough days, and, in 2022, take a huge hit on health care and benefits. Unions could try to fight back, but they may find, as they did in 2011, that the public and their traditional allies in the legislature won’t stand for it.

So if you’re a state employee, start planning for some furlough days. And if you happen to need government services on that day, you’re going to be out of luck.

Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.

DISCLAIMER: The views, opinions, positions, or strategies expressed by the author are theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, or positions of

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