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Furlough plan approved for Alabama state workers

MONTGOMERY — Alabama’s Personnel Board approved rules Wednesday that will allow financially strapped state agencies to furlough employees for up to 24 days a year to reduce payroll costs.

The Alabama State Employees Association, which represents a majority of state workers, immediately went to work trying to stop the rules from taking effect April 15.

State officials began looking at furloughs after state tax revenue declined due to the recession. State personnel rules allowed layoffs, but not furloughs. State Personnel Director Jackie Graham said furloughs are a way to trim payroll costs without layoffs, and most states allow them.

The Personnel Board’s 3-0 vote included state Department of Human Resources worker Joyce O’Neal, who was elected by state employees to represent them on the board.

O’Neal said furloughs are preferable to layoffs in hard times.

“Would you rather have no paycheck or a partial paycheck?” she asked.

The new rules provide that once a state agency has exhausted other budget-cutting measures, it may furlough an employee for up to two days per month. Employees would lose their pay for those days, but they would retain their seniority, vacation and health insurance benefits.

Workers who are laid off lose their health insurance along with their paychecks.

The furlough rules now go to the Legislature’s Legislative Council for a final review. The council can accept, reject or recommend changes.

Mac McArthur, executive director of the Alabama State Employees Association, said his group is urging the council to reject the rules. If the council doesn’t, then the association will challenge them in court, McArthur said.

He said the rules would amount to a nearly 10 percent pay cut for someone laid off 24 days in a year, and the rules are unfair because they don’t apply to the political appointees in state government.

A member of the Legislative Council, Senate President Pro Tem Rodger Smitherman, D-Birmingham, said 24 days is too many.

“I’m not going to support it in its present form,” he said.

State officials began working on the rules before Congress passed the federal stimulus package to help states.

Gov. Bob Riley said Tuesday state officials are still sorting out what Alabama will receive from the package, but he’s hopeful it will make furloughs unnecessary.

“We’ll know by the end of the week, but I don’t know of anything that will push us to make that kind of decision,” he said.

For some state workers in Montgomery, the prospect of furloughs is better than layoffs.

Mike Manasco, attorney for the state treasurer’s office, said furloughs would be less disruptive to state government than layoffs. “It can save jobs and ensure continuity and production,” he said.

Phillip Copeland, a grants accountant for the mental health department, said, “Given the alternative, it’s the lesser of two evils.”