Furloughs needed to balance budget

Furloughs have become something of the norm in the private sector during this ongoing recession.

Painful and costly as they may be for employees, they are preferable to more of the layoffs that have also become a norm in private business.

Now, furloughs are becoming a reality for some public employees in Kentucky. With authorization from the General Assembly, Gov. Steve Beshear's administration is in the process of implementing a furlough plan for the executive branch of state government.

The furloughs — six days for each employee, scattered throughout this fiscal year — are expected to account for $24 million of the $131 million in savings the administration must find to balance the current budget.

Even before the furlough plan has been completely finalized, several state workers have challenged it in court.

Although we see no reason government employees should be more exempt from furloughs than workers in the private sector, the suit does raise some questions the Beshear administration needs to consider as it implements its plan.

The most important of those issues involve agencies that maintain public safety and the question of whether it will be necessary to pay overtime to cover the absence of state police officers or the employees of prisons and other facilities that require 24/7 staffing.

If it does, the next question is: Does that overtime cost more than the savings from the furloughs?

Budget language on the furloughs dictates that all employees be treated the same, but it also allows limited exceptions for the state police and 24/7 facilities. But the administration has not made a final decision on whether to take advantage of those exceptions.

Furloughs will cause pain for state workers and cause strain in agencies throughout the executive branch, regardless of whether they have 24/7 responsibilities.

Ultimately, then, the bottom line for the administration, assuming the courts don't dictate otherwise, comes down to this question: If overtime costs do exceed the savings from furloughing personnel charged with protecting the public's safety, do those costs trump the fairness of treating every executive branch employee equally?

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