If you were a soldier in World War II, a furlough was something to look forward to. It was a sanctioned leave of absence from your normal duties, a chance to relax and go have some fun. In today's economy, the word furlough has lost some of its luster. It still connotes time off, but without pay.
Tomorrow, Jeff Brownfield, who represents university civil service employees, will appear before the General Assembly's rules committee to ask lawmakers to approve a measure allowing state schools to require employees to take as many as 15 days off without pay.
"It really was a reaction from our universities, through conversations we had had with them really back last spring," Brownfield says. "There were some concerns, with the continued budget issues, trying to save student services while at the same time trying to look for a variety of different ways to cut costs. And we had an emergency rule, actually, that was in place back in the spring and into the early summer. Prior to that, the only opportunity for a campus to cut some of those personnel costs were to lay employees off. And so, through conversations with a lot of our Human Resources offices at our various campuses, we developed a furlough policy that started as an emergency rule last spring and through the early summer."
Illinois is in its second year of operating without a state budget, and higher education has been limping along on meager stop-gap funds. At least two universities -- Northeastern Illinois and Western Illinois -- used the emergency emergency furlough rule to dock employees' wages.
"What we have found is that -- though our rule, by statute, would only apply to civil service employees -- the result of that has been the campus has had to look at all employees, whether they're administrative employees, academic professional employees, even faculty," Brownfield says. "In many cases, they've instituted furlough programs for other employees in addition to civil service employees."
Well, maybe not just anybody.
"So that kind of ties into it, you know? Are they going to impose furloughs and have everyone get a doubling of their health insurance costs at the same time? Some of our members make literally $10, $11 an hour. If their health insurance costs double, you know, I've had members tell me 'I'm going to have to quit, I won't be able to work because I can't afford it.' And that's a scary prospect. We've always been able to negotiate with every governor before this regardless of party, and this governor is hell-bent on destroying our union and all unions, and he's going to stop at nothing."
Other unions have agreed to a four-year wage freeze, but AFSCME is holding out for raises. The governor's office says union demands would cost the state more than $1.25 billion.