Jodi McDade and other state employees said they know they have to make sacrifices because of the state’s dire economic status, but they feel like lawmakers are piling it on them by increasing how much they will likely have to pay in benefits, stripping some other benefits, and now looking at allowing departments to use mandatory unpaid leave to balance the budgets.
“When you start hitting us from four or five corners, it adds up,” said McDade, a five-year employee with the Alabama Department of Revenue who works in Montgomery, but lives 40 miles away in Coosa County. “ … We are looking at an awful lot of cuts.”
McDade was among the state employees and state officials who spoke on Wednesday during a public hearing on a bill that would allow departments to use furlough, mandatory time off without pay, to balance their budget.
The committee did not vote on the proposal and Sen. Arthur Orr, chairman of the Senate General Fund budget committee, said they would continue to work on and discuss the bill.
Orr, agriculture Commissioner John McMillan and David Perry, finance director for Gov. Robert Bentley, said furloughs would give agencies another option besides layoffs.
McMillan is head of one of two departments that have announced widespread layoffs to meet budget cuts and he said cuts could be worse if he is not allowed to use furloughs.
Perry said there could be hundreds of additional layoffs if furloughs are not an option.
McMillan already plans to cut at least 60 employees from his department and the state judicial system announced Monday that it would likely cut at least 150 jobs.
“The governor’s goal is to minimize layoffs and cuts to state services,” Perry said. He said the cost of layoffs in Alabama is significant because people can cash out up to 60 days of accrued sick leave and up to 60 days of accrued annual leave.
Perry did say that any possible savings from furloughs were not included in Bentley’s proposed budget.
If the furloughs are not needed to balance the budget, “why start down this road,” Senate Minority Leader Roger Bedford said to the Montgomery Advertiser after the meeting.
Mac McArthur, director of the Alabama State Employees Association, said, with furloughs and paying more for benefits, that employees could see a 20 percent dent in their income. With the way the language is drafted, he said employees could be forced to go on furlough more than 24 days a year and that there is no termination to how long agencies could use the furloughs.
“If we weren’t in a financial crisis, this bill wouldn’t be before us,” Orr said.
McArthur would not answer whether he would prefer layoffs or furloughs if given a choice, comparing the option to cancer or a heart attack – “you die either way.”
He said the worst thing that could happen to a state employee is losing their job, but next is “death by a thousand cuts.”
“I feel like I have a bullseye on my back and my front,” said Paul Bivins, an institutional psychologist with the Alabama Department of Corrections.
Sen. Dick Brewbaker, R-Pike Road, and Bedford, D-Russellville, questioned the effectiveness of furloughs and said that many of those employees who were furloughed would be angry and have low morale. Brewbaker, a Montgomery businessman, said furloughs have not been effective in the private sector.
“I’m extremely suspicious of furloughs,” he said.
Brewbaker said if some department heads who were brought in to make tough decisions think furloughs are the answer, “they need to find another job.”
McMillan said there are some employees he would like to get rid of now, but instead they are protected by the state’s merit system.
Sen. Bobby Singleton, D-Greensboro, said that is the thinking that scares him. Singleton and Bedford said they were concerned that furloughs could be unfair or become political with department heads using it to target certain employees.
“It might not be so objective,” Singleton said.
Bedford and at least one state employee said many of the people who would be most affected by the furloughs and loss of pay are not the top wage earners.
Orr, R-Decatur, said one of his “sticking points” is a concern about furloughs not being applied equitably across the agency.
He acknowledged that furloughs, if used regularly by state departments, could account for a loss of 7 percent or more of the employee’s salary.
McArthur and some of the employees who spoke asked lawmakers to first target contract employees, which he said has “been exploding.”
McDade also said the cuts would not be so painful to them if lawmakers were willing to roll back the more than 60 percent pay raise that the then-Democratically controlled Legislature voted for themselves in 2007.
“We wouldn’t mind taking a few more cuts if they would cut their pay here,” McDade said.
One single mother, who works for the Alabama Department of Human Resources, said she understands the financial stress of the state, but that she needs to take care of her family. She said many of those impacted are not those with six-figure salaries.