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Education Desk: Higher Ed Employees May Face Furloughs

Courtesy of AFSCME Local 31

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.

Brownfield represents only a small percentage of state school workers, but he admits: The furlough rule could effect all employees at Illinois colleges and universities.
"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."

Brownfield says it's better than the alternative. He says furloughs are a way to maintain student services. That's another way of saying that furloughs are a compromise to avoid layoffs.
"As much as nobody wants this rule, including our office, we hope that this particular rule would give another outlet instead of people losing their jobs, losing their benefits."
He sees furloughs as a compromise -- a paycut instead of a layoff.
"I certainly view it that way, yes," Brownfield says. "I think in a general sense, when you look at it globally, I think anybody would view it that way."
Well, maybe not just anybody. 

"You know, that may be his opinion, and it could be lots of people's opinion. But we don't know whether or not it's the opinion of the employees," says Dave Beck, whose AFSCME council 31 represents thousands of unionized university employees. "We don't believe in anything that's unilaterally imposed by the employer. If the employees want to decide to take furloughs, then that's their choice. They can negotiate it with the employer. But it should never be imposed on them."
For Beck, furloughs are just part of a larger struggle between the union and Governor Bruce Rauner. AFSCME members have been working without a contract for more than a year, and Rauner has said there's no point in talking further.
"He's trying to get the labor board to agree that our negotiations are at an impasse. We believe strongly that we're not at impasse, and we're ready to continue negotiating. We've called the governor many, many times saying let's continue negotiating. But if the Labor Board says yes you're at impasse, then the governor's going to seek to impose his last best final offer, which includes a doubling of your health insurance costs for all state employees, including university employees," Beck says.
"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."

In a coincidence of timing, hearings both on the new furlough rule and on the question of whether the governor will continue negotiating with the union will take place tomorrow.
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.


After a long career in newspapers (Dallas Observer, The Dallas Morning News, Anchorage Daily News, Illinois Times), Dusty returned to school to get a master's degree in multimedia journalism. She began work as Education Desk reporter at NPR Illinois in September 2014.
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