On Furlough Friday
Sacramento state workers see their no paydays as part liberation, part smackdown.
One of the first steps in Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s response to California’s fiscal state of emergency was, according to pure speculation, the designation of a person or persons within the Department of Personnel Administration to come up with a catchy name for the 15 percent pay reduction about to hit 238,000 state employees.
“Fiscal Friday” may have been briefly considered, thrown out and followed discouragingly by “Frugal Friday.” “Fun Friday” was almost certainly discarded quickly. Eventually someone, possibly a veteran, suggested “Furlough Friday.” It was alliterative and optimistic, implying an act of liberation, the perfect combination of sympathy and smackdown.
Patting on the back presumably followed, then lunch at Spataro or Chops. The salary reduction had been successfully spun, and “Furlough Friday” was released to enter the vocabulary of Sacramentans as sly and thorough as an STD.
Little thought was given to the rest of the week.
The Thursday before a recent Sacramento Furlough Friday is clear and warm, the citywide mop-up after the first major fall storm well underway. Wood chippers and chain saws provide background music to the clusters of state workers making their lunchtime circuits of Capitol Park.
A number are strapped to iPods or hands-free cell-phone devices, and wave off anyone encroaching on their safety circle. Others continue walking when they hear, “Can we ask you a few questions about Furlough Friday?” A few stop.
Pat Ekeland glides slowly to a halt, a little hesitant. She’s retiring in two-and-a-half weeks from the Department of Health Care Services, whose gleaming warrens tower behind her on Capitol Mall. Her husband is already retired, and as a two-income family, she says that Furlough Fridays “aren’t a huge hardship.”
“I actually enjoy my Furlough Fridays,” she says. “You get to do things you can’t normally do on the weekend.”
Errands, mostly, and appointments. Not many people are taking vacations.
“Most of the people I know, they’re just using that Friday for taking care of business. It’s kind of hard to justify taking a vacation just because you have an extra day off.”
Gail Kuboi agrees. “I can’t afford to have fun,” she says.
As with most of the people I talked to, Kuboi has found herself cutting back on “extras.”
“I never go out for dinner anymore,” she says. “It’s probably healthier, but … ”
Something has been taken away, whether or not it helps to consider it an “extra.” Little things that people look forward to after a week of work are being done without. Movies, dinners out, weekend trips. Things that make it easier to go back on Monday.
“There’s not too much else to cut back on,” Kuboi says.
fur·lough (fur´lô) n. military; a vacation or leave of absence granted to an enlisted person
Everyone looks at the lost income that Furlough Friday represents from a distinct angle. Devyn Stanger sees it in terms of worms.
“I’m a fisherman, and the rivers aren’t so crowded on Fridays. But at the same time, making 15 percent less is preventing me from buying the kinds of bait I want. The worms I use are $8.99 a dozen, so it gets kind of pricey.”
He heads down into the Delta on his Furlough Fridays, going after stripers and sturgeon. Isleton, Rio Vista. It’s a world away from that of a process consultant for the Department of Health Care Services, and it’s become his main source of leisure.
The pay cut is “sort of driving my financial stability down,” he says. “I don’t have as much of an entertainments budget as I used to. It’s paycheck to paycheck with the hobbies that I have.”
He’s managing, though, and seems to consider himself among the lucky ones. His rent’s low and his bills aren’t overwhelming. Like everyone else, he’s making the best of it.
Many people’s image of a state worker is the obstructive apparatchik at the Department of Motor Vehicles, a disgruntled sociopath taking pleasure in ruining your day. It’s an image that makes it easier for the rest of us to accept Furlough Fridays. They’re just sitting around playing computer solitaire anyway, we figure, so what’s the harm?
Turns out there is some.
Debbie Brinsfield, a program technician with the Department of Public Health, has worked for the state for 28 years. She gets almost daily calls from debt collectors, a car-repossession company topping the list. Furlough Fridays reduced her monthly pay by $450, a sum almost equal to her car payment. She’s expecting them to come for it any day now.
“I send them what I can,” she says. “But they’re not working with me, so I think they’re going to come get it.”
She’s been borrowing money from friends, trying to scrape enough together each month “to get to work, get my meds, feed my kids.”
Even though Furlough Fridays are a temporary arrangement, she’s not sure how she’ll make it.
“Eight months away,” she says, “and I guess I’ll be walking.”
When the first Furlough Fridays were decreed last February, many state workers took it in stride.
“February we didn’t feel it yet, March we didn’t feel it yet,” Beverly Johnson says. “So I was having a blast having the furlough days. But reality really sunk in when the third day hit. That’s different.”
That third day hit in July, couched in a numbing stack of executive order WHEREASes, and sucked yet another 5 percent out of every paycheck.
Johnson and her friend Teresa Lindsey-Conesa, both associate government program analysts with Caltrans, have just come from lunch at Ma Jong’s. Once a daily habit, lunch out has now become a rare indulgence.
“Actually,” Johnson says, pointing to a co-worker moving away down L Street, “that gentleman treated us to lunch.”
“We’ve been bringing our lunches every day,” Lindsey-Conesa adds. “It’s not like you can come out and do something, come out and eat, because your funds are limited.”
They too tend to business on Furlough Friday. Johnson drives to the Bay Area to look after her parents, carefully coordinating the drive with her other errands to reduce gas use. When those are done, she stays put.
“Once you’re home, you’re home.”
“It’s not like you’re out contributing to the economy,” Lindsey-Conesa says. “You’re not.”
fur·lough (fur´lô) n. a usually temporary layoff from work: Many plant workers have been forced to go on furlough.
Many businesses immediately surrounding the main concentration of state offices around Capitol Mall, especially restaurants, are feeling the hurt, too. They’ve cut back on hours and reduced staff on Furlough Fridays. The impact, though, may not be universal. Other businesses seem to have gotten the nicer-smelling end of the stick.
According to Nancy Dagle, an environmental scientist with the Department of Public Health’s drinking water division, their Friday business has picked up.
“The Honda dealership where I take my car,” Dagle says, as an example, “their reservations for service have tripled on Fridays.” At least two other businesses will be benefiting the next day as well, when Dagle takes her cat to the vet and goes in for physical therapy.
Dagle is small and energetic, a white-water kayaker who makes her own clothes and tends a “victory garden” in her backyard.
“I have nine winter squash sitting in my living room,” she says. Not as guests, presumably, but dinner. “And if I want a new blouse, I’m going to make it.”
It’s hard to say how widespread this kind of self-sufficiency is, but it may be another factor in the increasingly complex equation spawned by Furlough Fridays. The full impact is much harder to judge than the seemingly straightforward calculation envisioned by Executive Order S-13-09.
There’s the effect on contra dance clubs, for instance. A close relative of square dancing, contra dancing is a sort of nostalgic underground that revives 18th-century English country dances. Dagle used to make the trip to the Davis contra dance most weekends without giving it a second thought, allemanding and boxing the gnat contentedly with like-minded steppers. But the hand of Furlough Fridays extends even to the Davis High School dance room, making it tougher for Dagle to surrender the $10 entrance fee for a night of dancing.
She might try to make up the difference with a second job, if she weren’t barred by the state from taking one in her field. According to Executive Order S-16-08, Dagle and others are “prohibited from entering into any new personal services or consulting contracts to perform work as a result of the furloughs, layoffs or other position reduction measures implemented as a result of this Order.”
So another job is out, unless she wants to explore new career paths.
“I’m a water and soil scientist,” she says, “but I cannot go out and be that under their restrictions. But I can go be a greeter at Wal-Mart.”
“We love Furlough Fridays!” Sheila Crisologo says, speaking for herself and for her friend, Kristine Joslin, who appears a little less enthusiastic.
“It does make it easier to do chores,” Joslin says.
They stand outside California Pizza Kitchen, leftover boxes in their hands, blinking into the sun. Crisologo looks on the bright side, which seems a sensible way to go. Given that Furlough Fridays and the 15 percent cut are out of their control.
“I’m used to it,” she says. “I don’t even want to go back. When we have to come to work on the last Friday, we’re a little disappointed.”
It helps knowing that it’s only temporary.
“A lot of people are tightening their belts, waiting for it to end,” Joslin says. “But if it [keeps] going, I know people [who’ll be] having trouble making their house payments.”
Recently married, Joslin and her new husband are among those counting down to June. Tomorrow night, though, they’re treating themselves. They’re going out to dinner, after her doctor’s appointment.
“I find I end up using my Fridays for medical appointments and things rather than taking sick time.”
Both Crisologo and Joslin are accountants with the Department of Alcohol and Drug Programs. Their workload, unlike them, does not take the day off. The work keeps coming in, and they’re expected to meet their deadlines.
“Vendors want to get paid no matter what,” Joslin says.
“We do have the same amount of work to do,” Crisologo echoes. “We just have to work harder.”
The one thing no one wants to do is the math. It’s best to avoid tallying, even for an accountant, what they’ve lost in the deal.
“All that money they took,” Crisologo says, her smile clouding up. “I could have had a brand new car.”
Still, they’ve accepted it, like it or not. And Crisologo sums up the response of a lot of state workers to the new reality, when she says simply:
“We made some adjustments.”
fur·lough (fur´lô) n. a temporary leave of absence authorized for a prisoner from a penitentiary
“I’m keeping myself busy,” Leon Alevantis says. “I’m not staying around home doing nothing.”
Alevantis is a senior mechanical engineer with the Department of Public Health, whose specialty is making the department’s laboratory and other facilities greener. Tomorrow, like most weekends, he’ll be working on a personal construction project, the remodeling of his house.
He began the work before the term Furlough Friday was coined, and is too far along now to stop. If he’d known about the furloughs at the beginning, he says, he never would have started. Because even though he has three more days a month to work on the house, the familiar catch is there.
“It gives me more time,” he says. “More time, but less money.”
Unlike most other state workers, he doesn’t think Furlough Fridays will end next June.
“I suspect there’s going to be a fourth furlough day starting the beginning of next year,” he says. “At that point, there’s going to be a lot of opposition. If they do that fourth one, there will be a big outcry.”
Possibly. But on the first floor of the Capitol, there is also a very big pen.
According to California Government Code Section 8558, the following are possible conditions leading to the declaration of a state of emergency:
“air pollution, fire, flood, storm, epidemic, riot, drought, sudden and severe energy shortage, plant or animal infestation or disease, the Governor’s warning of an earthquake or volcanic prediction, or an earthquake …”
“You really want to see something?” Debbie Brinsfield says, removing her scarf. Her head beneath the scarf is close-shaved, the bristles just starting to grow out. She shaves it herself when the stress becomes too much.
Her job is issuing delayed birth certificates. When someone fails to get one at the hospital, or when the birth takes place at home, they come to her. She has three kids herself. Two are out of school and on their own, the third is being home-schooled. So at least she doesn’t have to worry about how she’s going to get him to school.
She grinds her cigarette out and laughs, rubs her head. The front third is still available for shaving.
Does it help?
“For a minute,” she says. “While I’m doing it.”
Tomorrow, October’s final Furlough Friday, will be a different story around Capitol Park. Only the permanent residents—lobbyists, legislators, and dog walkers—will be around. Everyone else will be out running errands, visiting their doctor or evading collectors. You’ll be able to roll a bowling ball down the L Street sidewalk and not hit anyone.
There are, of course, pros and cons to Furlough Fridays. Every state employee recognizes that, and probably keeps a running mental tally, side-by-side columns that never quite match up.
As Alevantis points out, “At least we have a job.”
It’s a good thing to remember in times like this. But it doesn’t hurt to keep a Remington clipper close at hand, either.