Give County Workers Three-Day Weekends

Published Friday, May 23, 2008 in The Register-Guard.

Lane County’s finances are in dire straits, and leadership has not been forthcoming. The federal government has played peekaboo with sustainable funding strategies since it pulled the plug on timber payments and began to walk away from its century-old commitment to rural Oregon.

Senator Ron Wyden and Congressman Peter Defazio have each proposed legislation to fill the gap or cushion the blow, but in an era unfriendly to so-called “earmarks,” gaining a majority in either chamber is an uphill battle. The president has labeled such regional needs as “pork,” making Wyden’s and Defazio’s job that much tougher.

The Oregon Legislature has done no better, hoping the feds would come through in the eleventh hour. Governor Ted Kulongoski has convened a panel of experts and representatives to search for undiscovered inefficiencies. The most likely finding will be an excess in panels of experts and representatives.

The county commissioners themselves have not agreed on a direction out of the morass. Their varied strategies have never demonstrated sufficient resolve and unanimity to inspire the public’s confidence. Tax measures have been defeated, then implemented, referred to a vote, and defeated again. Lists of services to be curtailed, or crimes to be left unprosecuted, no longer move the public.

And now the voters themselves have dithered, choosing neither incumbent Commissioner Bobby Green’s “tough choices” mantra or challenger Rob Handy’s “listen for a change” alternative. The two candidates to represent north Eugene virtually tied in Tuesday’s vote and will face each other in the fall.

So where can the county look for leadership? How about the public employees’ union? Since salaries and benefits are the bulk of the county’s budget and the expected budget cuts will translate into over 200 county employees losing their jobs, who better to step up with a solution?

Time is of the essence, so here’s a suggestion.

Close every non-essential county office on Fridays. Excepting public safety workers, reduce every salary 20 percent from top to bottom. Give every county office worker a three-day weekend, every weekend. Offer employees the option of taking a 20 percent cut in their benefit package or retaining their full package in return for a 10 percent employee contribution.

A similar solution was implemented temporarily in Deschutes County and Oregon’s Judicial Department in 2004. Some workers found themselves reluctant to return to a five-day work week after the financial crisis passed.

This solution improves on the current plan of shedding 10 percent of the county’s workforce in many small ways and possibly one big one.

Layoffs are issued after considering seniority, so most of the salaries slated to be eliminated are at the bottom of the scale. An incremental pay-cut that is executed across the board will produce much larger net savings for the county.

Reducing everybody’s hours equally spreads the pain of the budget cuts to every department and every worker within every department. Any reduction will produce a loss in morale, but this method won’t produce any acrimony between workers or departments.

In return for pay cuts, county workers will receive a modicum of job security that they wouldn’t have if layoffs started at the bottom and slowly worked their way up. The county wouldn’t be adding numbers to the locally unemployed. Employees would have the immediate and tangible benefit of extended weekends.

County residents would begin to understand what less government actually looks like. If it’s Thursday afternoon and you’ve forgotten to get a marriage license or a building permit or a camping reservation, it’ll have to wait until Monday. It’s a nuisance, sure, but it’s the amount of government the citizens have chosen to fund.

After county workers and county residents recover from the initial shock, one of two things will happen. Residents will decide they want to return to full-time services and they’ll show they are willing to pay for it. Or a new professional class of 32-hour workers will gravitate toward county jobs, where they have the security and benefits of full-time work with the quality of life that comes with extra days off.

We could invent a whole new dance between management and organized labor that’s better for everyone. But who will lead?

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) is consults with small and civic-minded businesses on issues related to marketing, media and management. He blogs right here.