State workers brace for furloughs

More than 5,000 jobs in San Luis Obispo County will be affected when a scaled-down version of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s furlough policy takes effect Sunday.

The governor’s order, issued Wednesday, affects up to 5,200 positions in San Luis Obispo County, according to Lynelle Jolley, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Personnel Administration.

Those employees will be required to take three unpaid days off per month.

State workers’ union representative Chris Bricker said that will affect the ability of the employees to manage an increasing workload and deal with the stress of a smaller paycheck.

And, unlike the previous furlough order — in which state workers were furloughed a total of 46 days, equaling about a 14 percent pay cut — this one does not have an end date. Rather, it will conclude when lawmakers pass a 2010-11 budget.

“It’s just like a nightmare,” said Omar Garcia, a custodian at Atascadero State Hospital who supports his wife, who is disabled, and three children in Atascadero.

Garcia said he is often behind on his utility bills. A loan modification recently saved him from losing his home.

“For me, it feels that it’s really hard to recuperate from the furloughs,” he said.

The governor made the decision to furlough employees after Controller John Chiang said that until lawmakers come up with a budget, he’ll start issuing IOUs in August or September to save money for as long as possible. The state’s cash could run out by October, the controller estimated.

Assemblyman Sam Blakeslee, R-San Luis Obispo, said Thursday the furloughs can be demoralizing to workers.

“I’m no fan of these furloughs,” he said. “I’m concerned that there are better ways to negotiate and probably smarter ways to save money.”

He is pushing for a closer look at the size of various agencies and departments in Sacramento.

“We may in fact need to economize,” he said. “There may be situations where we have, frankly, too much fat up here in Sacramento.”

About 156,000 employees statewide are covered by the governor’s order, which he issued in an effort to reduce the state’s monthly payroll costs by about $147.2 million a month, according to administration officials.

Roughly 73,000 employees statewide are excluded based on where they work or their unions’ labor contract statuses.

That includes CHP and Cal Fire employees in San Luis Obispo County. Also not included are workers at state universities and community colleges. Schwarz-enegger instead requested they implement similar cost-saving measures.

“We have not proposed to renegotiate furloughs with our employee labor unions, but … will work to pay CSU employee compensation with alternative sources other than the state general fund,” California State University Chancellor Charles B. Reed said in a statement Thursday.

Cal Poly administrators will continue to cut costs by continuing a general hiring freeze, selectively deferring renovations on campus and employing fewer part-time instructors, university spokeswoman Stacia Momburg said.

The university will also continue the move it started last year to reduce the number of elective courses offered in an effort to free up full-time faculty to teach required courses so that students can graduate on time.

Furloughs amount to a 14 percent pay cut

State employees around the county will start taking what amounts to a 14 percent pay cut Sunday.

“Some people on the street who don’t realize what a state worker does, they’re saying they should have a 30 percent cut,” said Bricker, the representative for the local chapter of Service Employees International Union Local 1000. “It would devastate the surrounding communities.”

He has been lobbying recently against the governor’s plan to cut most hourly state employees’ pay to the minimum allowed by federal law — $7.25 an hour.

SEUI Local 1000 represents about 1,600 employees in San Luis Obispo County.

During the furloughs that began in February 2009 and ended June 30, Bricker said some employees, such as food service and custodial workers, were taking home about $1,300 a month.

“You tell me how anyone can survive on that,” he said.

The furloughs will affect about 650 employees at Atascadero State Hospital, 350 at Caltrans and about 700 employees at the California Men’s Colony, as well as employees at the DMV and guides at Hearst Castle.

Several years ago, said Chris Duncan, a registered nurse at Atascadero State Hospital, he could pay his bills and have some money left over to put into savings.

But not anymore.

“We’re going paycheck to paycheck and even then barely getting by,” he said. “And I consider myself one of the lucky ones. I do know a lot of people I work with who have lost homes.”

Linda Russo, a custodian at Atascadero State Hospital, said she is also living paycheck to paycheck, and she made the difficult decision to take her son off her insurance so she could cover her bills.

The 14 percent cut amounts to about $400 a month less in her take-home pay.

If it wasn’t for her husband’s job in Atascadero’s Public Works Department, she said, “I wouldn’t be eating.”

Russo said she collects recyclable items from work and turns in those materials every two weeks; on Thursday, she received $18.

“It helps,” she said. “I’m glad to have it.”

The Sacramento Bee contributed to this report.

Reach Cynthia Lambert at 781-7929. Stay updated by following @SouthCountyBeat on Twitter.