On Furloughing Staff: A Story of Changing My Mind

The opinions and positions expressed on this blog are always my own and should never be assumed to express the opinions or positions of my employer nor any other party other than myself.

I want to talk about something that happened where I work and how it changed my perspective. I want to talk about some lessons learned.

My employer, the Johnson County Library in Johnson County, Kansas, has furloughed 58% of our staff. We did this as part of a wider furlough strategy undertaken by the Johnson County Government.

I support this course of action. I think this was the right decision both for our staff and for the library as an organization. No one has lost their jobs. Everyone remains employed and retains their health insurance and other benefits. All furloughed staff are eligible for unemployment benefits.

Many of you read and responded positively to a tweet thread I posted last month near the beginning of this pandemic, in which I very strongly expressed my opposition to any form of unpaid leave or layoffs for staff. The fact that I now support furloughing JCL staff probably screams of hypocrisy.

I want to explain why I changed my mind. For all my grandstanding on principle and my moral certainty, this is a complex situation which makes practical action messier than I want to admit. I’m a big fan of lessons learned and I learned some difficult ones through this.

JCL had four goals when the pandemic hit:

  1. Keep staff and our patrons safe
  2. Keep staff paid
  3. Protect staff jobs
  4. Serve our community as best we can within the necessary constrictions of public safety needs

What we realized as we explored options for action was that in these circumstances, furlough actually helps us accomplish these goals. And I stress in these circumstances because these circumstances are unprecedented.

What made the difference was the federal CARES Act. It includes expanded unemployment benefits, such as a $600 per week stipend regardless of income level and the waiving of any unpaid waiting periods. We did the math and discovered that with state unemployment plus the federal stipend, all staff would continue to receive their full income if they went on unemployment.

In a nutshell, we can pay our staff in full using state and federal money, rather than our regular payroll funds. This changes the landscape of options available because that’s not normally the case. Furlough lets us keep people paid, keep people home, and keep their jobs safe. It also allows us to save money.

Because here’s the thing:

Those goals listed above? They can’t just be our goals for the duration of the present crisis—they must also be our goals for the aftermath that’s sure to follow.

There’s going to be an economic downturn resulting from this pandemic, maybe even worse than the recession of 2008-10, and we have to be ready for it. We have to be able to protect staff jobs and income when the economic consequences of all this hit us full force.

We’re going to lose revenue. We’re funded by property taxes and those will be reduced: businesses have gone out of business, and the state and county are talking seriously about some degree of amnesty for personal property taxes. We’re probably going to see postponed due dates for property tax payment, which means the timing of our revenue streams will be disrupted, in addition to being reduced overall.

This is going to be hell on our budget.

We need to start preparing for that now. If we want to protect our staff jobs and income through whatever comes next, we need to position ourselves for that as best we can. By placing staff on unemployment benefits now, we can cover a significant portion of our current operating expenses with state and federal dollars. This allows us to save money to build a stronger, deeper cushion to help us weather the aftermath.

We already have a robust emergency fund and we need it to last us through both this pandemic and through the subsequent economic downturn. Offsetting current expenses using state and federal money allows us to expand that fund for when we need it later. Furloughing staff now maintains their income and puts us in a better position to protect them long term, beyond just the current crisis.

This is the argument that won my support. Seeing the numbers laid out this way made sense to me. As long as the federal benefits are available and staff won’t lose any income being on unemployment, these numbers work out and help us protect our staff in the long run.

The other reasons for furloughing staff are political. We’re tax funded which makes us a political organization whether we like it or not. We depend on the support of tax payers: if we ever need any kind of ballot referendum, a new mill levy, etc., we need people’s votes. That means navigating some tricky political landscapes with an eye toward long term consequences.

Tax payers don’t like it when they think you’re wasting their tax dollars. There was a growing perception that we were paying people who weren’t actually working and that was building resentment in our community. We assigned projects for staff to work on from home, we wanted to use this time to accomplish a portion of the things that regularly get back-burned in the normal course of operations, and we authorized unprecedented levels of professional development activities which would have great long term benefit to the community in improved quality of service. We did everything we could to keep everyone working to earn their paycheck. But a lot of people in our community felt we were just creating busywork and that too many of our staff didn’t have their “real” work to do. There was growing public perception that we were wasting their tax dollars.

Whether or not this perception is correct, it creates a tricky political reality that we have to resolve. And we have to resolve it in a way that maintains long-term public support for the library.

There are a couple ways to address this:

  • Tell the community they’re wrong, keep paying staff to “not work,” and risk loss of public support
  • Bring staff back to work in the branches where they can do their “real” work
  • Furlough them

Option 1 comes with long term consequences we probably can’t afford. Option 2 puts people’s health and safety at risk. Furloughing keeps staff safe at home with their full income, and without risking the loss of public support. It turns out to be the practical choice with the fewest downsides.

What I learned through this experience is that principles are very clear but pragmatic action is not. The translation from one to the other can lead to unexpected paths.

I also realize that most of my moral outrage about how various businesses have treated their staff through this crisis comes from deeper problems I see in our society as a whole: we’ve built a culture that has largely abandoned any sense of communal responsibility, that values profit over people, and economic health over human well being. Because god forbid we actually expect employers to take care of their workers!

None of those are problems the library can fix. At least, not in any kind of immediately useful timeframe. And I have faith in the leadership of JCL: I know they care about our staff and hold themselves responsible for taking care of us. My regard for JCL leadership through the last couple months has only increased. So when we began to talk about the option of furlough, I never doubted the motivations of what we were trying to accomplish. Our goals are and remain to protect staff and patron safety, staff jobs, and staff income—and I know that.

That’s also why I support this decision. Because of the people who made it and my faith in them.

We furloughed staff in two rounds over two weeks at the beginning of April. Our Human Resources department filed everyone’s unemployment claim on their behalf, so none of our staff had to do that themselves. Communication about the process, transparency on how and why we came to this decision, and full information about how unemployment works was provided to staff via multiple communication channels. Admin, managers, and HR were present at a series of real-time online meetings where all staff were encouraged to ask any questions and express any concerns or fears they had. We were as transparent as we could be and offered as much hands-on guidance through this as we could. We remain in contact with furloughed staff, to see how they’re doing, and to update them on evolving plans.

I’ve been furloughed from previous jobs. I’ve been downsized and laid off. It sucks. I’ve never worked for an organization that has done as much as JCL to support staff through a process like this. If you’re going to furlough people, I think JCL came as close as any organization can to doing it right.

These are really hard times and we face difficult decisions. Moral certainty is important but it’s also easy. Practical solutions are much harder. Morals must be our guide to help us identify the best possible solutions to the problems we face, but sometimes none of the available solutions are good and the best you can do is the least bad. Sometimes solutions aren’t good or bad in-and-of themselves, but depend on how you plan and implement them. Sometimes the best solution in the short term comes with long term consequences that may end up being worse. Sometimes the best solution depends on the scope of your view: are you trying to solve things now or position yourself for later? Or both?

I’m very good with moral certainty. I’m not always so good with seeing the nuance of situations. I’m not always very good at translating into practical actions. This was a lesson in nuance I needed to learn.

3 thoughts on “On Furloughing Staff: A Story of Changing My Mind

  1. As someone who was laid off from library work this pandemic, it’s great to see the amount of thought and effort you put into your staff. Thanks for the insights on what goes into the decision-making process too!

    Like

    1. I’m very sorry to hear you were laid off! I continue to hold my conviction that layoffs should only ever be a last resort when the situation is utterly dire. It really bothers me how many businesses and organizations jumped directly to layoffs. That’s not right.

      It came down to our desire to keep staff paid. Typically, furlough means a loss of income: either it’s unpaid or reduced pay, and not all furloughs leave people eligible for unemployment. And under typical circumstances, unemployment is capped at less than full income.

      Really, it’s the federal aid currently available that tipped the scales. We also waited until April to be sure all staff would be eligible for the expanded benefits. Staff keep full pay and we get to save up a bit more to weather the storm yet to come. It’s certainly not an ideal situation but we think it will help us protect staff through the economic consequences to follow.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. That’s very thorough and considerate of you and your team. I’m sure nothing can be “ideal,” but your staff are probably luckier than many already.

        I’m from Canada and our government has been very generous with pandemic-related benefits, so being laid off wasn’t as horrible as it could have been. Whatever economic consequences might come are concerning though.

        Like

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