BOISE – Hundreds of Idaho state employees are being ordered to take time off without pay at the holidays this year to help balance the state budget.
Gov. Butch Otter praised the moves by two agencies as “good management.” While employees may be shorted in pay, at least “they’ve got a job,” he said.
“This is a good management style, as far as I’m concerned,” Otter said. “They’re taking two days out of the year … where there’s precious little activity.”
The state Department of Agriculture is ordering its 325 employees to take off the days after Thanksgiving and Christmas without pay. All workers at the state attorney general’s office will take half-days without pay on the days before Thanksgiving and Christmas.
“I think people understand that it’s a difficult economic time,” said Bob Cooper, spokesman for Attorney General Lawrence Wasden. “A lot of people in Idaho are losing their jobs. … Nobody wants to lose a half-day’s pay or a full day’s pay, but under the circumstances, we’re better off than a lot of folks.”
Pamm Juker, chief of staff and communications director for state Agriculture Director Celia Gould, said the department decided on the move Friday while looking ahead to additional state budget cuts. The attorney general’s office decided to impose its holiday without pay when Otter announced a 1 percent midyear budget cut in September.
Juker said she, Gould, and other top administrators will keep the department’s main office open and answer phones on those two days. They’ll take their day off without pay another time.
At the attorney general’s office, the unpaid holidays will save the state $58,800. The rest of that agency’s 1 percent budget cut, which adds up to a total of $188,800, is coming from other personnel savings, like not filling vacant positions. Juker didn’t know how much money the Agriculture Department will save.
Juker said employees’ reactions have been mixed.
“Of course there are some people that are more than happy to take that opportunity to spend time with family,” she said. “It just gives them another day with family at a great time of year to be with family. And then others are a little skeptical about it.”
Wayne Hammon, head of Otter’s Division of Financial Management, said the two agencies are the only ones so far planning holiday furloughs, but he expects others to follow suit.
“The average employee costs the state $155 a day, just on average, all classes of employees from the director to the custodian,” he said.
At that rate, giving 300 employees an unpaid day off would save the state $46,500.
Otter has left decisions on what to cut to each agency head. The 1 percent budget cut in September led most to trim travel, cell phone use and supply purchases.
They also delayed hires and limited overtime.
“Those are the low-hanging fruit,” Hammon said. “When you get up above 1 percent, it becomes much more difficult.”
Otter also asked agencies to hold an additional 1.5 percent in reserve in case more cuts are needed. He’s expected to announce additional cuts as soon as next week.
“One of the things we looked at in the budget is what can we do to maintain these jobs,” he said.
Alex Neiwirth, organizer for the Idaho Association of Government Employees, a union that represents some state employees, said, “It’s going to wind up taking money out of the pockets of families across Idaho, and that’s going to impact the local communities where they spend their money and do their business. … In my opinion, it seems like the exact wrong prescription.”
Idaho state employee pay lagged 15 percent below market levels in a state survey conducted a year ago.
That prompted Otter to call for 5 percent annual pay increases for the next five years to make state pay more competitive, but lawmakers this year granted only 3 percent, with 1 percent of that across the board and the remaining 2 percent according to workers’ merit.
Hammon said Otter will continue to allow agency directors to decide how their departments should cope with cutbacks.
“They’re going to know the individual circumstances of their department,” he said.
“He’s more comfortable letting the directors make those decisions, because they’re the ones on the front line.”