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June 16, 2019

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Furloughs creating staffing ‘nightmare,’ longer wait times

Mandated time off for state workers presents problems for some agencies

Lawmakers last month instituted a one-day-a-month furlough for state workers as a gentler money-saving alternative to the straight salary cut proposed by Gov. Jim Gibbons.

But as the state Personnel Department develops emergency regulations to institute the furloughs by July 1, several drawbacks of that plan are coming to light.

Some departments will have a harder time than others doing without employees.

For example, prisons must have a certain number of guards at all times. And mental hospitals need to maintain staffing ratios to remain accredited.

Even in departments where employees can more easily be furloughed, such as Department of Motor Vehicles offices, the result will be longer lines and reduced services.

“It’s a nightmare,” said Andrew Clinger, the state director of administration.

It’s also uncertain whether the furloughs will save the $333 million legislators projected when they approved the plan, he said.

“I’m concerned about us meeting the targeted reduction,” Clinger said. Some departments might not be able to spare the workers, and the furloughs could lead to higher overtime costs in areas such as corrections and public safety, he said.

Anticipating some of these issues, lawmakers set aside about $4 million to make up for the cost of employees exempted from the furloughs. But “I’m not sure that’s going to be enough,” Clinger said.

The Board of Examiners, made up of Gibbons, Secretary of State Ross Miller and Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto, must approve all exemptions to the furloughs.

The governor had proposed a 6 percent pay cut in state workers’ salaries to help balance the budget.

The Legislature countered with the furloughs — the equivalent of reducing state employee salaries by 4.6 percent and saving $333 million over two years.

Mike Willden, director of the Health and Human Services Department, said it will be difficult to cover shifts at 24-hour facilities such as correctional facilities for youth, psychiatric hospitals and care facilities for the mentally disabled.

Wait times for services such as welfare and food stamps could grow, though Willden noted the Legislature added some positions to help process the flood of applications for government assistance that have come with the recession.

Willden said he didn’t plan to ask for any furlough exemptions. “Not unless someone brings me a compelling reason,” he said.

If some employees are exempted but others aren’t, employees could raise questions about the fairness of the policy, he said.

Suzanne Pardee, spokeswoman for the Corrections Department, said the agency is still developing its recommendations, but corrections officers, nurses and other “critical staff” are likely to be exempted.

“It looks like administrative personnel will be furloughed one day a month,” she said.

Tom Jacobs, spokesman for the DMV, said most employees will be furloughed, with the possible exception of information technology workers. He acknowledged that the result will be longer lines at department offices.

“Basically what it’s doing is reducing the workforce,” he said. “Individually, it’s not a big number. But that’s an employee who’s not going to do DMV business for 8 hours.”

Furlough rules set by the Personnel Department will also apply to classified workers in the higher education system. The Board of Regents will determine the effect on salaries of professionals such as professors.

Similarly, local school boards will decide how to handle cuts in teacher pay.

If the regents and school boards don’t cut the pay of professors and teachers, they will have to make equivalent cuts elsewhere.

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