Furlough days are no government holidays

John Rush got rid of cable TV.

Teresa Potter thinks about getting a second job.

Kimberly Reynolds is buying less food so she can afford rent.

At the state Department of Social and Health Services office on North Broadway in Everett on Tuesday, visitors found doors locked. A sign on a window said: “This office will be closed Monday and Tuesday, September 6 and 7, 2010, to observe Labor Day.”

The office was closed all right, but the sign didn’t tell the real story.

“It’s not a long holiday,” said Randy Kurtz, president of Local 948 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees/Washington Federation of State Employees. His opinion echoed words on a sign Reynolds held up Tuesday as traffic zipped past the state office. “We want to work,” it said.

Tuesday was the third of 10 unpaid furlough days that about 35,000 state workers are required to take. In April, the Legislature approved no-pay days to save what the state Office of Financial Management estimates will be more than $70 million.

Because lawmakers faced a $2.8 billion deficit through June 2011, many state workers are now slashing their household budgets. An extra day off over a long weekend sounds like a good deal, but how many of us can really afford 10 unpaid days — two full work weeks?

I revisit this issue knowing it’s a hot-button to some who see waste any time the label is “government” work. When I wrote about furloughs in July in advance of the first unpaid day, one reader’s online comment called me a clueless “maroon” — just like in the Bugs Bunny cartoons.

As uncivil as that feedback was, its point wasn’t lost on me. It came from someone who said he’d been out of work since October.

Ironically, the workers carrying signs outside their closed office Tuesday routinely see victims of economic disaster. The office on North Broadway helps people get food assistance and navigate the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program, once known as welfare.

Rush, 51, is a financial services specialist with the state agency. “I’m seeing people I never thought I’d see, highly skilled people,” the Monroe man said. “It could easily be you asking for help.”

In this economy? He’s right, it could be.

Some state workers earn far more than most of us do — but certainly not all of them.

Reynolds, 44, of Marysville, said she makes about $32,000 a year. A single parent with one child at home, she’s been doing clerical work for the state agency for about 15 years. “I love my job,” she said.

“It’s come to a point I’m going to have to get a second job,” said Potter, 40, another single parent. The Lake Stevens woman, also a financial services specialist, has children ages 12, 15 and 18. “Rent is almost half my take-home pay,” she said. “My little guy grew 4 inches over the summer. I can’t afford new clothes for him.”

Yes, everyone who’s employed is lucky to have a paycheck at all. That doesn’t mean we’re spending. Week after week, we read about weak sales.

Perhaps furlough days can save the state $70 million. Yet the millions not being paid out in state wages are also not being spent. That’s a direct hit to businesses, and an indirect hit to state coffers in lost sales taxes.

“I’m cutting back on splurges, things I used to take for granted,” Rush said. He’s driving less, eating out less and cutting out some phone service and cable TV.

“I’m losing $150 a day in net pay,” said Kurtz, 56, who now often rides a motorcycle instead of driving his F-150 Ford truck to save on gas. “I stay home,” the Marysville man said.

At the state Department of Licensing drivers license office on Everett’s Evergreen Way, car after car pulled up Tuesday, only to find the place closed. The Web site told the truth: “Closed Sept. 7 due to budget cuts.”

Outside the licensing office was Michael Day, of Lake Stevens. The 42-year-old had hoped to renew his license Tuesday before embarking on his job hunt. “I just lost my job,” said Day, who had worked in auto-parts sales.

Furlough days may save some jobs, but for many workers they’re no happy holiday.

“You live off what you make,” Potter said. “It hurts everybody.”

Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460; muhlstein@heraldnet.com.

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