John O'Leary is a former GOVERNING contributor. He is co-author of "If We Can Put a Man on the Moon: Getting Big Things Done in Government."E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
The situation was dire. In the fall of 2008, King County Washington, the state's most populous county which includes the city of Seattle, was facing an expected budget shortfall of close to $90 million dollars. Needing to find some cost savings on the labor side, the county decided to go with a furlough program by introducing 10 unpaid furlough days to more than 7,000 union and non-union employees, mostly by adding on to existing holiday weekends.
In order to do so, however, the county had work with 15 different unions representing various county employees.
Employee support for the scheduling shift was mixed. The county was looking at significant layoff possibilities, however, and County Executive Ron Sims had indicated that he might impose the furloughs despite union objections if they couldn't reach an amicable agreement.
The decision to spread the furlough days out throughout the calendar year was motivated in part by a desire to minimize the impact on employees. According to Amy Bann of King County's Human Resources Division, spreading the days out minimized both the impact on employees' paychecks and diminished any impact on benefits, since under existing formulas a reduction of one day per month wouldn't have an impact on benefits whereas five or ten days in a single month would.
After working with a coalition of union representatives, the county crafted a 51-page document laying out all the details of the plan--including its impact on part-time employees, contract workers, and a host of leave related consequences. As in most furlough programs, a number of public safety and transportation employees were exempted.
In the end, employee unions did approve the guidelines for the furlough program, preferring the furlough to potential layoffs.
Savings and Productivity Impact
The primary driver behind the plan was payroll savings, with the county looking to save approximately $15 million through the furlough program. In addition, by lengthening long weekends, there are greater energy cost savings when buildings are closed for multiple days in a row.
According to King County sources, the demand for services around holiday weekends tends to be lower than normal, so the furlough's have somewhat reduced citizen impact. Without question, however, the sporadic schedule of off-days does result in some citizens seeking services being surprised by closed offices. Everyone knew that Friday, July 3, 2009 was going to be a holiday, but King County offices were also closed Monday, July 6. In addition, certain business activities, such as real estate closings, can be affected by county offices being closed when most other businesses are up and running.
The budget outlook for King County in 2010 doesn't look any brighter--some estimate a county shortfall of more than $40 million. Like many furlough programs, the King County experiment may become a permanent feature of the landscape.
John O'Leary (email@example.com) is the executive editor of the Ash Institute's Better, Faster, Cheaper web site, and coauthor of the book "If We Can Put a Man on the Moon..." to be published by the Harvard Business School Press in Fall 2009.