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Thousands of state workers stay home as part of governor's furlough program

The program shuts DMV offices but allows some agencies to function. Schwarzenegger says it will save $1.3 billion over the next 17 months, but some workers and officials question that figure.

February 07, 2009|Michael Rothfeld, Patrick McGreevy and Joanna Lin

SACRAMENTO AND LOS ANGELES — Thousands of state workers stayed home without pay Friday, closing Department of Motor Vehicles offices but allowing some agencies to function on Day One of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's mandatory furlough program.

"I studied a lot for this test," said a disappointed Anthony Martinez, 17, of Los Angeles, who skipped classes at Belmont High School to take the written test for a driver's learning permit, only to find out the DMV office near USC was closed.

Under the program, about 238,000 workers are required to take two days off per month without pay. For most employees, those days are the first and third Fridays of the month, but it was unclear how many workers actually were off the job. Some departments brought workers in for the day without pay, ordering them to take a day off later.

"We're working -- we're just not getting paid for today," said Claudia Portillo, a receptionist at the Unemployment Insurance Appeals Board office in downtown Los Angeles.

Lawmakers and the governor have so far failed to reach a deal on how to close the nearly $42-billion deficit projected by the middle of next year. An agreement continued to elude them Friday.

Schwarzenegger's administration said the furloughs would save $1.3 billion over the next 17 months, but some workers and officials have questioned that figure, arguing that the resulting overtime and lost federal dollars in some services could end up costing at least as much as the furloughs save.

The nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office warned that such 24-hour facilities as prisons and mental hospitals, which already are short-staffed and paying substantial overtime, probably will not save the state money by forcing workers to take unpaid days off.

LaRae Bustamante, furloughed from her job processing disability claims at the Department of Social Services headquarters in Sacramento, questioned how keeping her from her federally funded work would save the state money.

"It's ridiculous," Bustamante said. "It's blowing up the house when the roof needs fixing. My disabled clients are going to have to go two days a month without their cases being worked on."

Roland Becht, a DMV field representative in Sacramento and a member of his union's bargaining team, said some DMV workers were brought in on the Martin Luther King Jr. state holiday, earning extra pay, to process registrations and licenses in anticipation of Friday's furlough.

Officials of state employee unions continued negotiating Friday with the governor's office in an effort to roll back the furloughs, saying there are better ways to save money. Administration officials said they are open to making changes that would save money. Californians are nearly evenly split on their views of the program, a recent poll by the Public Policy Institute of California found. Roughly 49% of residents opposed the furloughs and 45% approve, the poll found.

Some of the employees subject to furlough days are not required to take them on the first and third Fridays. Public safety workers, including California Highway Patrol officers, will take their unpaid leave under different arrangements to keep vital services operating. Franchise Tax Board employees and Fish and Game enforcement workers also are among this group.

In addition, employees of all eight statewide elected officials, except the governor, are not subject to the furlough program. These include employees of the secretary of state, treasurer and insurance commissioner, among others.

The effect of the furloughs played out in different ways throughout California.

Downtown Sacramento, dominated by state office buildings, was largely empty Friday. It was smooth sailing on the typically clogged freeways leading into the city, and some of the shops and restaurants that rely on state workers didn't even bother to open.

But at the Ronald Reagan State Building in downtown Los Angeles, nearly every service was up and running, including the child-care center and the cafeteria. The building houses many of the services currently not subject to the furlough program, such as the secretary of state and the Franchise Tax Board, and some whose employees will take different unpaid days off.

Some state agencies closed only some of their services Friday. For instance, the Workers Compensation Appeals Board and the Division of Workers Compensation offices were closed, but the state Compensation Insurance Fund was open.

Nowhere were Californians more affected than at the approximately 180 DMV offices. The agency, on average, processes 136,000 vehicle registrations and 35,000 driver's licenses per day, said spokesman Mike Marando.

In San Francisco, dozens of people stopped by the DMV office, only to find signs on the doors saying the office was closed.

Jose Lara, 45, a San Francisco house painter who arrived to register his car, was annoyed to find that he would have to come back another day.

"I don't understand why it's closed," he said. "The DMV makes a lot of money every day."

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