State workers, educators brace for furloughs

Unions still awaiting details on how the process will work

Government workers, educators and Maui college employees are bracing for an expected round of furloughs Jan. 1 that their unions have heavily criticized with the holidays fast approaching.

“How do the businesses stay open if you continue to decrease the generating income of the working class people?” said Jeremy “Jay” Vanzandt, a University of Hawaii-Maui College grounds and maintenance foreman. “How do we support the Maui community? How do we support the state if everybody has a decrease in finances?

“We don’t even know if we’re going to make ends meet, and you know, it’s Christmas, it’s the holidays, and you can’t spend, so how can you expect businesses to do better?”

Vanzandt is one of the many workers on Maui and across the state waiting to see how their employers will handle the furloughs announced earlier this week by Gov. David Ige, who is asking thousands of workers to take off two days a month starting Jan. 1.

Local unions have expressed major concerns, calling the decision “ill timed, poorly planned and unnecessary.”

After the announcement Wednesday, the Hawaii Government Employees Association, the Hawaii State Teachers Association, the University of Hawaii Professional Assembly and the United Public Workers unions said in a joint statement that they were given “a very short window” and no guidance to determine which employees to furlough and/or if an exemption should be sought.

Union leaders said Thursday that there has been confusion among the departments and that they’ve been told that each department may be directed to implement furloughs independently from the others. All four unions have contracts in place and none have agreed to furloughs.

“It’s downright scary that these are the people who are leading the economic recovery and essential services that affect the health and functioning of our state,” the unions said in the statement. “The Ige administration should halt this ridiculous plan now before more damage is done to the workers, public services and Hawaii’s economy.”

The unions noted that under Ige’s plan, upwards of 30,000 employees would be affected, including teachers, educational assistants, custodians, grounds-keepers, cafeteria workers, social workers, university professors, engineers, building inspectors, caretakers and hundreds of others positions.

Vanzandt, who worked for UH-MC for 19 years, said Friday that his crew is already short two people before furloughs and is unsure how the school will properly stay open without sufficient staffing.

“When you sacrifice so much and you give so much of your heart to your job, and we’re the first ones who get thrown under the bus in times of struggle and hardship without having a better plan, so for me it will be hard to explain to my family and my coworkers,” he said. “Most of us have to work two jobs just to get by. It’s going to be a rough thing for a lot of people.”

There are 141 UHPA members in Maui County, including 132 faculty at UH-MC and nine extension agents. The UPW Hawaii Division, which represents more than 13,000 members statewide, said it has 2,200 members across Maui, Molokai and Lanai, and about 1,500 are public employees. It is unclear how many would be impacted by the furloughs.

The state has projected a $1.4 billion budget shortfall in the general fund for each of the next four years, prompting Ige’s decision.

“I do know that we are unable to sustain the size of the state government based on the revenues that we are receiving and that’s why I am ordering the furloughs,” he said during a news conference Thursday.

Juliana Patao is an assistant professor of Cooperative Education at UH-MC who also oversees the Career Center, works with the Maui County Career Development Board and is the UHPA Maui representative. She said Thursday afternoon that the furlough plan is “shocking and alarming.”

“You have to consult with every respective union, and his way of consulting is one direction, you know, he hasn’t answered any of our questions, he hasn’t tried,” said Patao, who is nearing 10 years at UH-MC. “It seems very one sided that all public sectors are being attacked.

“Why aren’t we having more discussion to better understand where these cuts can be made?”

Especially during the holidays and unprecedented times when money is already tight, furloughs “will add more stress,” Patao said.

“Our money is not just for ourselves, it’s to support our whole family,” she said. “And those living paycheck to paycheck and barely covering our expenses, with furloughs, it’s definitely going to cut into our pockets, so I feel for the lower-wage public sector, like our janitors, our maintenance people, I really feel for them.”

To address confusion among public workers and agencies, Ige said that he will be issuing more details soon to department leaders who can then relay the instructions to their employees. But unions said they were not notified of furloughs or cutbacks prior to negotiations, which are underway.

“So the governor came out with his furloughs and we didn’t know anything,” Patao added. “The university has been very proactive with doing what’s best; UH administrators took a pay cut effective Nov. 1, and what I really don’t get is why he hasn’t had all these discussions back in April about how we can address the budget cuts on a systemwide basis.”

The HSTA called the furloughs “a horrible holiday gift” for educators who are already stressed with adjusting to health and safety protocols, distance learning and hybrid classes.

About 22,000 salaried, general-funded employees working in the state Department of Education could be subject to furloughs.

“The governor’s Office of Collective Bargaining is the lead on these active negotiations; therefore, we do not have details of the specific impact to HIDOE employees at this time,” Superintendent Christina Kishimoto said in statement. “We are anxious to get these details to you as soon as possible. We know these are challenging and uncertain times, and our employees need to understand the impact these labor cuts will have.”

Helena Brown, a 14-year educational assistant and HGEA member, said Friday night that she was unhappy when she heard the state’s plans but was also not surprised.

“It’s going to be a hardship,” Brown said. “My husband has already been furloughed and now my salary will be cut too. It will be hard to keep up with day-to-day living expenses, let alone the unexpected that arises.”

Brown has spent the past 11 years at Baldwin High School, where she’s passionate about teaching her students, but between the pandemic and now furloughs, instructors are seeing their kids less and less.

“Virtual education is not the same thing. Students need to see each other and their teachers for their emotional and psychological well-being,” she said. “I’m proud of our school and we are doing everything we can to make our kids safe. Having one less day of instruction due to furloughs cannot be good for them since we are already working with less face-to-face instruction.”

HGEA Executive Director Randy Perreira said that the union is aware of the “very difficult situation” that the state is facing, but that the furlough plans are vague, ill timed and lack transparency.

HGEA is Hawaii’s largest union with more than 38,000 members statewide, including 1,656 state employees in Maui County.

“I think if I were one of our local retail merchants, or one of our local restaurants, I’d be worried right now because government employees are very likely to slow down whatever holiday spending they would consider prior to this announcement,” Perreira said during a Zoom conference Wednesday night.

Perreira said the chance for layoffs “is inescapable” even with Ige’s furlough plan.

“I don’t see how you can cut that much out of each department’s operating budget without impacting layoffs, so he was very misleading,” he said.

* Dakota Grossman can be reached at dgrossman@mauinews.com.


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