Program attempts to delay layoffs

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With the looming prospect of eliminating around 96 positions in the next two years to combat the city of Berkeley's growing deficit, staff will have to consider whether efforts to delay layoffs through voluntary time off will actually alleviate the problem or only burden employees further.

The voluntary time off program, which was first implemented in 2004 as part of a union recommendation to delay layoffs, continued this fiscal year with 29 closures of city offices - a 10-day increase from fiscal year 2010 - on the second and fourth Fridays of every month and the final week of the calendar year in an effort to hold off layoffs through March and April.

"It's around a million dollars a year in savings," said city Budget Manager Teresa Berkeley-Simmons. "As the deficit grew, the days were expanded. We definitely talk about it as part of the budget process - it truly is a cost-saving measure."

City staff have been working to cut costs across departments to close the lingering $1.8 million deficit for the current fiscal year. As staff prepare the budget for fiscal year 2012 - set to be adopted on June 28 - questions as to how to address a projected $12.5 million deficit are being raised for the next fiscal year.

According to Berkeley-Simmons, the process of taking voluntary time off has been largely disorganized - some staff members who provide billable services for the city have participated in the program and, as a result, caused the city to lose outside revenue - and savings accrued in one fund may not be applied to another, so staff who take time off in departments that do not need to cut costs may not necessarily help alleviate the city's financial pressure.

"It wasn't strategic in nature - the dollars were captured, but the areas most in need might not have been addressed," she said.

According to David Hodgkins, director of human resources for the city, this year's process has been much more "formalized," with individual written commitments facilitated by an agreement with the city's labor unions wherein employees agreed to take leave without pay or utilize accrued hours of vacation leave to lower vacation balances to the city's 320-hour maximum threshold - an action that has also saved the city the burden of paying off leave balances at higher pay rates in future years.

These formal commitments - of approximately 350 employees - allowed staff to set a minimum expected amount of savings in this year's budget proposals, Hodgkins said.

Between July 9 and March 25 of the current fiscal year, the city saved just under $1.5 million - and expects to save a total of $1.8 million through the end of this fiscal year - through both voluntary and mandatory time off employed by the unions and their for union members, according to Berkeley-Simmons.

City spokesperson Mary Kay Clunies-Ross said there have not been many complaints from the public regarding lack of access to city services since the program's inception because essential services such as police, fire and maintenance continue to operate.

Rather, the burden has fallen on staff, Berkeley-Simmons said.

"There were unexpected consequences as the deficit continued to grow," she said. "When you take the time off, there's more work for you to do, and with a 10 to 16 percent reduction of staff over the past two years ... the negative is the workload issue and the time available to actually complete your work."

While the program is likely to be maintained through the next fiscal year to delay the 96 proposed staff reductions for the fiscal year 2012 and 2013 budgets, the number of days to be designated for voluntary time off has yet to be determined and will be approved once the council passes the budget.

"I need to sit down and assess the true value to the city," Berkeley-Simmons said. "That's a lot of days - 29 days - and staff is feeling the impact. It's sort of a catch-22."


Sarah Mohamed covers city government.

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