State workers not happy with furloughs, increased costs

Eric Naing

State worker Kay McCloskey of Springfield thinks Gov. Pat Quinn’s call for “shared sacrifice” for his proposed budget could force state workers to sacrifice more than others. 

As part of $1.3 billion in proposed budget cuts made to state lawmakers Wednesday, Quinn wants to require many state employees to take four unpaid furlough days off and pay more for health insurance and retirement benefits.

For new hires, the news is even worse, as they would see smaller pension benefits and a later retirement age.

Quinn notes the changes will save the state important cash now to help fill a massive $11.6 billion budget hole and cut tens of billions from future pension costs. Quinn chief of staff Jerry Stermer indicated the changes could go through even despite union opposition.

McCloskey, who works for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, thinks furlough days are demoralizing for state workers. She also questions why the governor would force state workers to accept what would amount to a 1.5 percent pay cut when it would only save the state $36 million.

“I think they’re looking in the gutter for change when there are much bigger dollars floating around out there,” McCloskey said.       

Such opposition could set up a heated battle in the coming weeks and months. The unions insist the Quinn administration has to get their approval for the cuts because of binding contracts between the two sides governing pay and benefits.

Stermer said the administration wants to negotiate with the unions, believes the pension changes could go ahead as long as lawmakers approve them.

“We don’t think that an agreement by the legislature would not be able to go forward if the conversations with the public employees unions were not concluded in a way to modernize these systems,” Stermer said in an interview Wednesday with The State Journal-Register’s editorial board.

That same possibility for the health insurance side is still being examined, Stermer said.

Illinois is not the first state to consider furloughs. To deal with its $42 billion deficit, California famously implemented its “Furlough Fridays” system where all state offices were closed every other Friday. Maryland and Georgia have also turned to furloughs to save money.

Under Quinn’s plan, employees would pay 2 percent more for retirement, and health insurance payments would climb to bring in another $200 million. The administration did not have exact numbers Wednesday for how much more an average worker would pay for health care coverage.

Anders Lindall, spokesman for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 31 union, estimates workers could see a $1,300 increase per health care plan.

He questioned whether furlough days might create safety issues in government and warned Quinn that he may face litigation if the union’s state contract is changed.

“The language is clear,” said Lindall. “It protects our members and we’ve shown that we’re ready, willing, and able to go to court to make sure it stands up.”

Workers are fuming about seeing their pay possibly cut through furlough days and health insurance and pension increases.

“The governor might be able to get the furlough days through, but the union isn't going to give on pensions or healthcare costs,” Marty Bliss, who works for the state Department of Healthcare and Family Services, wrote in an e-mail to the newspaper.

Pat Barto of Springfield, who has worked for the State Board of Education for more than 34 years, fears such increases will doom her financially.

“Making us take cuts as drastic as proposed will certainly ruin me and will probably force me into bankruptcy,” Barto wrote in an e-mail. “How will that help?”

Stermer said the administration will work with agencies to structure the furlough days so they can either all be taken on one day, or staggered on different days. He said lawmakers and university employees are not covered by the furloughs because the governor does not have control over their budgets, while public safety and direct care workers leaving the job would create too many hazards.

Quinn will take four furlough days, Stermer said.

Stermer said the administration also plans to post information about state government on the Internet, including employee salaries but not addresses. Such postings drew the ire of employees when lawmakers discussed them recently as invasions of privacy.

“We see no reason why all the public information should not be made available,” Stermer said.

Lawmakers were split on the cuts facing state employees.

The two top Senate leaders agreed it’s a hard but necessary move.

“I give the governor a lot of credit for that,” said Senate President John Cullerton, D-Chicago. “Those are things that are going to be difficult, but they need to be done.”

Rep. Raymond Poe, R-Springfield, said it was unfair to “balance the budget on the backs of state workers.” Rep. Rich Brauer, R-Petersburg, questioned whether Quinn’s pension reforms were legal.

“To go in and say that it is the state workers’ fault and we need to cut back on pensions for new hires, I think is not only unconstitutional, but morally, I don’t think it is right to have,” said Brauer.

Ryan Keith contributed to this report. Eric Naing can be reached at (217) 788-3095