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Some furlough days actually cost California money

A shortage of staff to cover 24-hour shifts at prisons means workers are going in on furlough days and being paid in IOUs that will eventually cost the state -- and its taxpayers -- much more.

October 14, 2009|Shane Goldmacher

SACRAMENTO — Staff shortages are forcing tens of thousands of state workers employed at prisons and other around-the-clock institutions to report to work on their furlough days -- and the state is paying them with what amount to IOUs that will be costly to taxpayers, according to a Senate report to be released today.

In the long run, the state will save far less than the $1.7-billion touted by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger when he ordered state workers furloughed three days a month, the report concludes.

"Really what is happening in these facilities is the state is not reducing hours, they're just deferring paychecks," said Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento), who ordered the report.

"Plain and simple, it's a poorly thought-out program."

In the case of the prison healthcare system, the furloughs are actually costing the state tens of millions of dollars, the report states.

Clark Kelso, the federally appointed prisons medical receiver, had asked the Schwarzenegger administration for a furlough waiver but was denied.

"We're able to cover what otherwise would be the gap in personnel by using overtime" and private nurses and doctors, Kelso said. The entire $108 million in projected furlough savings has been wiped out, according to the report.

The regular prison health-system workers, meanwhile, are accruing vacation and furlough time that will cost the state $37 million to $47 million in coming years, the report states.

"We're creating a long-term liability for the state, and it's hurting people," said Steinberg, who represents the capital city, the hub of a state workforce enduring a 14% pay cut. The Democratic leader created the Senate committee that wrote the report.

Schwarzenegger spokeswoman Rachel Cameron said the administration would review the findings of the report, which was obtained by The Times.

Despite earlier criticism of furloughs, particularly for workers paid with federal money and tax collectors whose forced days off cost California money, the governor has steadfastly defended his across-the-board approach.

"The state has never had to deal with a $60-billion deficit -- over half of the general fund -- in one year," Cameron said. "Because of that, all areas of state government have been forced to cut back and do more with less."

Those working in 24-hour sites, unlike most state workers who must stay home three Fridays each month, are given the freedom of when to take off. "Management should be scheduling self-directed furloughs, much like vacation time, to maintain coverage," Cameron said.

In the corrections system, the report says, workers accrued 1.5 million unused furlough hours in the program's first seven months -- worth $52 million in salary at the top correctional officer pay rate. Prison workers banked an additional 1 million hours of unused vacation -- a 500% increase over last year -- from February through August.

"The long-term cost of this is greater than the savings," David Lewis, deputy director for fiscal affairs for the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, said in the report. "You sacrifice the future to deal with the current problem."

Furlough days are not supposed to be cashed out by workers. Instead, they must take the days off by June 2012. The problem is the corrections department "doesn't have the relief staff to cover all the days off owed," the report states.

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shane.goldmacher @latimes.com

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