Unpaid leave option proposed

To trim labor costs in the face of a tightening budget, Clark County leaders plan to offer employees voluntary unpaid leave in a five-week experiment.

If commissioners approve the furloughs, the pilot program, designed to gauge workers' interest, would begin Wednesday and run through Jan. 23.

Workers could take a maximum of 40 hours unpaid leave during this period, or an average of one day off per week.

Voluntary leave is one of many avenues the county is exploring to reduce costs within a strained budget, said Don Burnette, the county's chief administrative officer.

The holidays seemed the best time to test employees' interest because they're more likely to take days off to be with family, he said.

"If this thing isn't going to be used during the holiday season, it's not going to be used during the rest of the year," Burnette said.

Employees who slice a day from their work week under this program would suffer no loss in benefits, including medical, vacation, sick leave and seniority, Burnette said.

People who work in critical services, such as police and fire, will be ineligible, he said.

Union leaders acted neutral toward the proposed furloughs, saying that workers must decide for themselves whether to reduce their own hours.

"At this time we feel that participation in any voluntary, unpaid furlough program ... is an individual decision," said Al Martinez, president of the Service Employees International Union Local 1107, in a written statement.

Roughly 9,500 county workers belong to the SEIU.

SEIU's local leaders met Friday to discuss whether any of the higher-ranking members had concerns that the program might be a "slippery slope" leading to involuntary cutbacks in hours or staffing, said Amber Lopez Lasater, the union's spokeswoman.

"We're not endorsing it; we're not against it," Lopez Lasater said.

The county appears to be making a good-faith effort to avoid layoffs during the economic downturn -- something the union strongly backs, she said.

If workers are laid off, that could have an impact on important services, she said.

She noted that unpaid furloughs have been offered before, but that this probably would be the first time they'd been used to ease a budget crisis.

Gabi Bahnam, a county parks employee, said she would not reduce her work week unless it was to prevent layoffs.

"If it's saving people (from) getting cut, I'd go with it," Bahnam said. "Otherwise, I don't want to cut hours. I need the money."

One employee, who asked not be named because she feared losing her job, said most ground-level workers can't afford to lose a day's pay.

"We all want to do our part, but the average worker is not making the big bucks," she said.

The county will assess how many workers participated in the five-week program and decide whether to make it a year-round option, Burnette said.

However, lack of participation won't automatically lead to involuntary reduction in hours or layoffs, he said.

"I don't see the nexus between the two," Burnette said. "We're looking at reducing costs in all kinds of areas."

Contact reporter Scott Wyland at swyland@reviewjournal.com or 702-455-4519.