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Hawaii Corporation Counsel Lincoln Ashida on “What is a Furlough?”

The following is from Lincoln Ashida’s “Blog“:

Recent discussion in our media have included the possibility of furloughs for County of Hawai‘i employees. What is a furlough? The term “furlough” does not appear in the collective bargaining agreements (union contracts) for the employees of the major unions our County employs. Merriam-Webster defines “furlough” as “a leave of absence from duty granted especially to a soldier.”

Suffice it to say what proponents of employee furloughs for the County envision are days County employees don’t have to come to work, and consequently the County will not have to pay them, leading to a cost savings. However it is not as simple as that.

First of all, it’s important to distinguish between County officers and County employees. Officers are either elected or appointed and serve at will. For example, the Mayor, Prosecutor, Council members, and department heads are County officers. “Employees” as that term is used when referring to proposed furloughs covers those persons whose wages are bargained for and who have rights under their respective collective bargaining agreement. The appointing authority of the officers may order furloughs at any time. For example, Mayor Billy Kenoi has already directed each officer in the Mayor’s Office to be furloughed one day a month for an entire year. Although the cost savings will be far from enough to make up for any budget shortfall caused by the Legislature’s proposed reduction in the TAT contribution to our County, every little bit helps, and it is leadership by example.

For union employees, furloughs are much more problematic.

While litigating a recent labor case on behalf of our County, I had the opportunity to research and learn about the civil service system and merit principle that is at the heart of government employment in Hawai‘i. In a recent decision, our Hawai‘i Supreme Court recognized the merit principle as being fundamental to the recruitment and hiring of qualified individuals to serve in the public sector. The vast majority of positions in our County require the applicants to meet certain minimum qualifications, and to pass a written test to determine whether they are able to perform the job, and to gauge their qualifications vis-à-vis other applicants. This merit principle effectively ensures only qualified individuals are hired in the government service. In turn, they are afforded a number of rights found in their collective bargaining agreements as authorized by our State Legislature.

The collective bargaining agreements (contracts) between the County and the worker unions are something that are negotiated and agreed upon on a statewide level. If the County is to “furlough” its employees for any period of time, the contract requires the parties to follow a very specific process.

Whether you support furloughs for our County employees or not is a personal decision. There are legitimate arguments on both sides and ultimately it will be the State Legislature’s decision regarding our TAT contribution that will for all practical purposes dictate whether employee furloughs must be pursued.

As ever, if you have any comments or questions on the above or any matter, please feel free to email our office at Lashida@co.hawaii.hi.us, or call me at (808) 961-8304, extension 118. This message was posted on May 1, 2009, at 1:30 p.m.

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