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Eye On Boise

Health & Welfare orders ‘Friday furloughs’

All Idaho Health & Welfare offices except state hospitals will close at noon every other Friday for the rest of the year, and the employees will be on furlough for those half-days. Notice of the move went out to all of the department's employees yesterday afternoon, after Gov. Butch Otter proposed an additional 1.6 percent holdback on the current year's state budget. The "furlough Fridays," as the employees are calling them, start on Jan. 22.

The department has nearly 3,000 employees, but 85 percent of its budget goes to benefit payments. Already, in holdbacks over the past two years, Health & Welfare has trimmed down its operating expenses to just 6 percent of its budget, said department spokesman Tom Shanahan, trimming things like travel and training until all that was left was office leases, utilities and hospital operations. That left personnel costs - 9 percent of the department's budget - as the last possible place to cut. "There was really no place to go," Shanahan said.

"The sad part is if you look at the record caseloads we're seeing, it's really difficult because we're stretching our staff," he said. "We're seeing record caseloads in many areas. It's not slowing down."

In an article published in the department's internal newsletter, to which all employees were alerted by e-mail yesterday afternoon, Director Dick Armstrong said, “The cold reality is we cannot continue to provide the same level of service with these personnel reductions. We are going to have to close our offices every other Friday afternoon for the remainder of the fiscal year to meet the objective.” He added, “There are details to work out, for there will have to be some exceptions to the office closure furloughs, such as at our institutions. But the majority of our workforce should begin planning now to take four hours of furlough every other Friday afternoon.”

Shanahan said the 380 workers at State Hospital North, State Hospital South and the Idaho State School & Hospital can't take furloughs, "because we have minimum staffing criteria for those facilities." And even with all the worker furloughs, the savings won't be enough to meet the full mid-year holdback Health & Welfare expects  to face under the governor's budget proposal: $1.6 million in state general funds, and additional savings will have to be found. Because state funds that Health & Welfare spends often are matched by federal money, the cut also will mean a $900,000 cut in federal funding to the department, for a total hit of $2.5 million this year.

Beyond the current year, additional cuts are likely in the next fiscal year that begins July 1, but Shanahan said the department doesn't yet know whether they'll translate into more furloughs. "We don't know what for sure we're going to do in 2011," he said.

Betsy Z. Russell
Betsy Z. Russell joined The Spokesman-Review in 1991. She currently is a reporter in the Boise Bureau covering Idaho state government and politics, and other news from Idaho's state capital.

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