Hoping to avoid layoffs amid a steep downturn in tax revenue, the largest union for government employees in Orange County proposed Friday that workers take unpaid time off during the holidays -- a move one union official said could save the county as much as $20 million.
Nick Berardino, general manager of the Orange County Employees Assn., which represents a majority of the county's more than 17,000 workers, called on employees to take one to five days off without pay between Dec. 22 and Jan. 4.
Berardino made the proposal one day after county officials told him they were considering laying off 124 workers from the Social Services Agency in what could be the first in a series of job reductions. His proposal called for all county workers -- ranging from librarians to sheriff's deputies to road repair crews -- to stay home without pay.
County Executive Officer Tom Mauk confirmed Friday that the county was preparing to lay off Social Services Agency employees, many of them eligibility workers who help process applications for public assistance.
Mauk said he had not yet had time to research Berardino's proposal and did not think it was something the county should move on swiftly.
"Everybody is going to sacrifice, one way or the other. If that's a preferred alterative to layoffs, that's something we ought to look at," Mauk said
Among those who Berardino suggested take unpaid time off were Mauk and the five elected members of the Board of Supervisors.
"We're asking everybody in the county family to step up and help each other during this time of crisis," Berardino said.
The source of the county's trouble is a decline in sales tax revenue -- a result of reduced consumer spending amid the recession -- and an expected drop in property tax revenue as home values decline. On top of that, the county expects a reduction in funding from the state.
Last month, the Board of Supervisors approved $30 million in budget cuts, primarily by postponing purchases and construction projects. Mauk and his budget analysts have suggested that the county search for areas to trim another $30 million or more because of the state's gloomy financial picture, cutbacks that Mauk said would probably include layoffs.
Berardino wrote Mauk on Friday, suggesting that the county use savings from the proposed holiday work furlough to prevent layoffs. He asked county supervisors to consider the unpaid leave at their Tuesday meeting.
Several employees have said they would be willing to take days off without pay to help save jobs, Berardino said. If all employees took five days off without pay, the county could save $20 million, he said.
"Some will take a day or two. Some won't be able to take any. Some will take the entire two weeks," Berardino said. "In order to save jobs, you need to move quickly."
Chris Prevatt, a worker for the Health Care Agency and union board member, said he would take unpaid time off if it would prevent layoffs.
"We're one big county family," he said. "I'm willing to step up, one day, perhaps more."
Berardino's proposal received a mixed response from county and union officials.
"I have seen nothing documented to be able to make the claims that my friend Nick Berardino is making," said Wayne Quint, president of the Assn. of Orange County Deputy Sheriffs. "Before we would even contemplate anything like this, we've got to know what the numbers are. We have a responsibility to our members and the taxpayers."
Supervisor Bill Campbell said he liked the idea and hoped supervisors addressed it soon.
"This is another way to save some money, and it can be done quickly," Campbell said, adding that he would volunteer to take unpaid leave.
Local governments throughout the country are considering, or have already implemented, similar work furloughs. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has proposed requiring state employees to take one day off a month without pay and give up some of their paid holidays to help reduce the state's budget deficit. Officials in San Francisco; San Diego; Chicago; Toledo, Ohio; and several other U.S. cities have been given unpaid days off to deal with budget problems.
Berardino said Orange County has other options for saving money. Among them, he suggested that county managers forgo 5% in pay raises they were scheduled to receive in the first six months of 2009.
"How do you look at a single mom trying to raise a couple kids, making clerical wages, and say, 'We're going to lay you off . . . because now we can use that money to line our pockets with a raise this year,'?" Berardino said. "That's leadership Wall Street style."