Impact of upcoming furloughs has Hawaii state workers anxious
By Michael Tsai
Advertiser Staff Writer
Her husband is retiring from the U.S. Postal Service this month. Her daughter, a single mother, bought her first home not even a year ago.
Nancy Sakamoto, 57, was comfortable with the idea that her family might have to lean on her financially — welcomed it, even — but that was before Gov. Linda Lingle's announcement two weeks ago that the state will seek to erase a budget shortfall of approximately $730 million largely at the expense of state workers.
"I was going to be the sugar mama," said Sakamoto, a special-education teacher at Solomon Elementary at Schofield Barracks. "But no more."
Some 14,500 state employees are facing mandatory furloughs of three days each month starting July 1 and continuing for the next two years.
The furlough order does not affect the Department of Education, the University of Hawai'i or the Hawai'i Health Systems Corp., which are governed by independent boards. However, Lingle has said that she will restrict funding to these departments by an amount equivalent to what would be saved by furloughs, which could very well force the departments to adopt the furloughs on their own.
The furloughs will save the state $688 million. The balance will be covered by anticipated cuts to healthcare spending for low-income adults.
As Sakamoto and other state workers lament, the cost to those affected is significant. Furloughs totaling 72 days over the next two years will reduce state workers' wages by 13.9 percent. For those enrolled in the state's Employer-Union Health Benefits Trust Fund, that loss will be exacerbated by a 23.7 percent increase in healthcare coverage costs, also starting in July.
Sakamoto said she hopes her department will be able to find less drastic means of meeting its stricter budget demands, but she's preparing for the worst.
"I've been planning since I first heard about ... (the furloughs)," she said. "I've been putting money aside and I tell others to do the same."
Thus, the Sakamotos' planned vacation to San Diego has been indefinitely postponed and all other non-essential expenditures curtailed.
"We've cut out all the so-called 'fun' things," she said. "No vacations, no movies, no going out to dinner."
For now, Sakamoto's concern is making sure her daughter, who is also a teacher, is able to make her mortgage payments.
"If they make us take the furloughs, we're going to have to help her," Sakamoto said. "I don't want her to lose her place."
Like many other state workers, Sakamoto says she understands that the economic situation requires tough decisions, but she questions why state workers must bear the brunt of the cutbacks.
"It's a state crisis," she said, "not a state-worker crisis."
Andrew Snow has been teaching in Hawai'i public schools for 16 years, the past two at Mililani High School. To Snow, teachers have already submitted to an annual furlough.
"We get paid for 10 months because the state doesn't think it's important enough to pay us for a full year," he said. "And yet, most teachers do a lot of work in the summer. We take workshops and classes at our own expense, work on lesson plans, clean the classrooms and prepare materials."
Snow said he takes home about $2,800 per month. He estimates that the furlough wage losses coupled with the increase in health coverage expenses will add up to "slightly less than the rent I pay to share a house."
"If we take this furlough, I don't know how I'll pay my rent, pay for food and pay for the gas to get me to work," he said. "If (Lingle) ... got even half of what she's asking for, I still don't know how I'll do it. I don't have $350 in slush money. Most of us don't have any savings and we can't survive with any less than we have now."
Robyn Vierra, a statistical clerk with the Department of Agriculture, said she was in favor of a one-day-per-month furlough as a way to cut expenses and save jobs.
"Three days was more than I expected," she said.
Vierra, who has two grown children and two others still at home, considers herself fortunate that she gets her healthcare coverage through her husband, Frank, a National Guardsman currently deployed in Iraq.
Vierra said she talked with several state workers who are confronting the possibility that they may have to cancel their coverage or make similarly risky decisions to survive the furloughs.
"I can live with it," Vierra said. "But I don't know if everybody can."