Scoppe: Furloughed? Been there. Done that.

Associate EditorOctober 9, 2013 

— I SPENT LAST week in the mountains of North Carolina, hiking and shopping and reading and shivering (this was far too late in the year to increase my altitude and my latitude simultaneously) and, thanks to four friends who believe that preparing sinfully indulgent meals is essential to relaxation, consuming way more calories than I burned off in the treks up and down mountains.

This has become a delightful annual tradition, but as in previous years, I wasn’t on vacation.

I was on furlough.

It was my second weeklong furlough this year; I scheduled the first one during my parish’s annual mission work trip to another part of the N.C. mountains, where people who know what they’re doing repair homes for those in need and teach teenagers to do the same, and I provide whatever limited assistance I can.

In fact, while there’s nothing pleasant about a one-time-at-a-time pay cut of nearly 4 percent, I’ve come to count on having these unpaid vacations — some of my colleagues call them furcations, which is actually a real word, having something to do with dentistry — and I’m not sure how I would manage to do all the recreating I want to do without them.

The reason I tell you all this is that I was on furlough when the federal government closed some of its doors, forcing 800,000 federal employees onto furlough.

There are, of course, significant differences between the furloughs that are being taken by all of us at The State and at other businesses across our state and nation and the ones that many federal employees are enduring.

Our company has scheduled furloughs because, like others in our industry, we still haven’t fully recovered from the recession and because, once you balance your budget with the help of a one-time cut, it’s awfully difficult to balance it the next year without repeating that one-time cut. (Note to state legislators: It works the same way when you try to balance your budget by using one-time revenue.)

Federal employees are furloughed not because careful managers came up just short of being able to stay on budget without furloughs but because the children in charge of our government have refused to do their jobs.

Although I don’t know for certain from year to year or even from quarter to quarter whether there will be a furlough, I know going in how long mine will last, and I get to pick when I take it. No such predictability for federal employees, who could be back at work by day’s end — or could remain temporarily unemployed for days or weeks or … well, we and they just don’t know.

And I make a point of living well within my means, so I don’t feel it if I miss a few paychecks. Not everyone is able to do that, and many who have the ability to put themselves in that position have chosen not to do so.

But still, a furlough is a furlough. No matter how legitimate or illegitimate the reason for it. No matter how long its duration. No matter how well-prepared you are for it.

And no matter who you work for.

While I certainly appreciate the work that so very many dedicated federal, state and local government employees do, there’s always some context missing when they get furloughed. Or don’t get what they consider large enough or frequent enough pay raises. Or have to pay more for their health insurance and other benefits.

You’d think, from their response and the media coverage, that those of us in the private sector don’t face the same problems. We do — at least as much as if not more than government employees.

And we face those challenges and disappointments without our bosses deciding to pay us for our furloughed days, as the U.S. House voted Saturday to do, and the Senate is certain to go along with at some point.

Does that make any sense?

No, federal employees shouldn’t be punished for their bosses’ willful incompetence. But neither should they be rewarded. And the fact is that getting paid for not working is a reward. Significantly less of one when you have to get by in the short-term without your expected income. But still, it’s a reward.

And it’s a reward that punishes the rest of us, who have to pay for federal employees not to work. Admittedly, we do share blame for this mess, for electing this gang that won’t shoot straight. But isn’t that punishment enough in itself?

Like so much in life, there is no good solution: Paying government employees not to work is unfair to taxpayers, their employers, who get nothing in return for that pay; not paying them is unfair to our employees, because they didn’t choose not to work.

But also as with so much in life, some solutions are less bad, and less unreasonable, than others. How about if we pay them for the furlough days — and then reduce their vacation time? It is, after all, the very start of a new fiscal year. If a day-for-day reduction seems too harsh, could we at least consider docking a half day’s vacation time for each furlough day?

Or, here’s a really radical idea: How about if the Congress does its job?

Ms. Scoppe can be reached at cscoppe@thestate.com or at (803) 771-8571. Follow her on Twitter @CindiScoppe.

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