Guest Post: Furloughed at the University of Maryland


A lot of conservative legislators seem to think that giving aid to state governments doesn’t stimulate the economy or help save and create jobs. Well, “fortunately” a good friend of mine was recently put on furlough from his part-time job as an instructor at the University of Maryland so he’s in a position to document the very real impacts of state budget cuts:

In one sense, I resent those Maryland lawmakers who haven’t ponied up the salary they pledged to give back to the general fund as a sign of solidarity with state employees who have been forced to take furlough. Bunch of hypocrites, right? As of this morning, I’m one of those employees facing the furlough. That furlough reduction is money I can’t spend, and no one wants to endure that when higher state servants are sitting pretty.

But transparent political gestures—here I picture Clay Davis clutching Prometheus Bound, wrapping himself in the gesture of tragedy on the steps of the state capitol—won’t actually help the situation. A furlough is no kind of solution to the problems that Maryland and other cash-strapped states are facing. What is needed is more spending to fuel economic expansion, funded by direct financial aid through federal stimulus spending.

I’m an adjunct instructor for the University of Maryland—which Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley asked to reduce its salary and wages budget by $15.9 million. This hit comes on top of a fall 2008 reduction in the university system’s budget by $15 million, which slashed services by implementing hiring freezes, increasing class sizes, and reducing facilities renewal funds. All goals contrary to economic stimulus (and higher education). As I understand it, the university structured the furlough so that the highest-paid employees were among those given the furlough: administrators and instructors whose responsibilities realistically prevent them from taking a furlough day. Elsewhere in the state government, at offices where the mandatory vacation is viable, furloughs tend to erase their own cost savings. People need state services, so employees who remain on are forced to cover for their furloughed coworkers. Furloughed employees who return to work face increased workloads. And benefits and office costs still persist despite wage reductions.

Further, diminishing staffing levels does not diminish fees, which angers customers, who may seek better service elsewhere or skip state services altogether. Furloughs are an interruption for offices that must subsequently depend on some workers being away from the office. This is to say nothing of the psychological toll on the furloughed workers. Furloughs are stressful: They don’t guarantee that there won’t be more furloughs down the road—nor do they forestall layoffs. (Indeed, furloughs haven’t forestalled layoffs in Maryland.) And money that state employees don’t have is money they aren’t spending.

(For what it’s worth, the furlough is not a great burden for me and might even be mistaken, since I am on contract and only a part-time employee.)

The New Hoovers, per Matthew’s coinage, might well greet furloughs as a smart reduction in government size and spending in a time of crisis. But in fact furloughs just make state services more inept, with wage cost savings offset by increased workloads, stressed-out workers, lawsuits, failed services, etc. It’s a “do less with less” mandate at time when states need to increase spending and access to needed services. State legislators should just keep their money.

State governments have no good choices under the current circumstances. But the federal government can and should step in with adequate levels of financial assistance to states.