Fresno State done with furloughs

Say goodbye to employee furloughs that preserved jobs but muddied schedules and frustrated students at Fresno State and other California State University campuses.

The program -- which may be the first in CSU history -- ended Wednesday, saving about $270 million and several thousand jobs, system officials said. But the mandated 24 unpaid days off for most workers also created headaches that few want to repeat.

"I didn't know a single student who liked this idea," said Steve Dixon, the outgoing president of the California State Student Association and recent graduate of Humboldt State.

Pedro Ramirez, president of the Associated Students Inc. at Fresno State, appreciated the job savings but also wasn't a fan.

"I felt like I was paying more money for less instructional time," he said. "It was also confusing to some students distinguishing a universitywide furlough day, which affected the library and student services, from that of a class furlough."

Last year, most CSU employees agreed to take two unpaid days off each month -- a roughly 10% pay cut -- to help manage a $560 million shortfall. The move came on top of student fee hikes and other cost-cutting measures.

Furloughs were a popular tactic across deficit-ridden California. In January, for example, the Fresno Deputy Sheriff's Association and the Sheriff's Management Association agreed to 40-hour furloughs.

State workers have taken 46 unpaid days since February 2009. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger warned last month that furloughs could continue this year as the state fights a $19 billion deficit.

But there is little appetite to extend furloughs at CSU. Officials say cost-cutting measures and enrollment reductions have pared the bottom line, but they also are relying on several state budget proposals that would provide more money -- about $365 million -- for the system in 2010-11.

Claudia Keith, a spokeswoman for the 23-campus CSU system based in Long Beach, said furloughs created operational headaches for employees and logistical problems for students.

Individual campuses had some latitude in how they handled furloughs. At Fresno State, the campus completely closed on some days and partially on administrative furlough days, with offices such as financial aid and admissions shut down but classes in session.

Provost William Covino said the university couldn't operate in the traditional way in the face of severe financial cutbacks. Even if offices had been kept open at half-staffing, for example, people would expect the same level of full service -- and could have been disappointed.

"We cannot continue to do more with less -- and more and more and more with less," he said.

Covino said students had less access to professors and campus offices. But he praised faculty and employees for their dedication to students despite furloughs.

Nancy Kobata, an administrative assistant in the Lyles Center for Innovation & Entrepreneurship and president of the campus chapter of the California State University Employee Union, said furloughs were a hardship for everyone -- especially students.

And "it was really difficult to keep track of faculty," she added.

Faculty members determined on an individual basis which days to take off -- sometimes canceling class sessions or office hours.

Lisa Weston, an English professor and president of the California Faculty Association chapter on campus, said she took furloughs on teaching and nonteaching days. On teaching days, her classes received a reading assignment.

Furloughs fueled morale problems and made professors more conscious of how much work they did off the clock, she said.

"It was a wake-up call to faculty on how much free labor they had been providing -- and for many faculty, a wake-up call on how much free labor they did not intend to provide in the future," Weston said.

Both she and Kobata questioned whether the program protected enough jobs on campus. Last year, about 200 nontenured faculty lost work. Most of the 50 or so layoffs this year are in the support staff ranks.

"We still feel it should have done more" to protect jobs, Kobata said. Her union suggested voluntary furloughs this year as a way to save jobs, but that idea seems dead.

Keith, the CSU spokeswoman, said the program hasn't been popular. Even Chancellor Charles Reed, in a speech last March, said he hated furloughs and the problems they created.

Most students and employees "are probably glad they're ending," Keith said.

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