Furloughs likely, again, as part of Georgia agencies’ budget cut plans

Staffers in the agency that investigates child abuse complaints and signs up Georgians for food stamps and Medicaid found out Tuesday that they may have to take off a dozen days without pay in the second half of 2020 to meet state-mandated budget cuts.

The news wasn’t unexpected.

The economic shutdown brought on by the pandemic has led to mass unemployment, and some businesses remain closed. Many of those that have opened are doing limited business.

Because of that, state tax collections have plummeted.

Agencies this week will be turning in plans detailing how they will meet the mandated 14% spending cuts for the upcoming fiscal year — which beings July 1 — and many are expected to require workers to forgo days of pay.

The massive University System of Georgia has already announced likely furloughs to its employees. Child welfare worker furloughs were mentioned during a Department of Human Services board meeting Tuesday.

Furloughs were common for state employees and teachers during the Great Recession a decade ago.

“I think that is what we pretty much expect,” said Alex Camardelle, a senior policy analyst for the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, an Atlanta think tank. “It seems like furloughs are where the reductions are going to come.”

The goal is to cut more than $3.5 billion in spending. State lawmakers will return in June to pass a budget for the new fiscal year. They will have to decide which proposals to accept and which to reject. Agency plans that are being turned in this week are only the starting point.

The state provides all or part of the money to fund paychecks for between 200,000 and 300,000 teachers, university staffers and state workers in dozens of agencies — from agriculture and transportation to schools, courts, prisons and law enforcement.

Much of state government is personnel-heavy. So there is no way to cut $3.5 billion or so without affecting employees. That means furloughs or layoffs.

For teachers and other k-12 employees, the final decisions will be up to local boards of education, which receive some of their funding from property taxes and can make individual choices about how to spread the fiscal pain. But schools will see a cut in state funding that will be impossible for most districts to make up without spending reductions.

During some years of the Great Recession, the Division of Family and Children Services furloughed staffers one day a month.

But the expected drop in state income and sales tax collections is expected to be more severe in fiscal 2021 — which runs through June 30 of next year — than in any single year of the Great Recession.

Tom Rawlings, the director of DFCS, said his plan calls for using unobligated funds from the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program — commonly known as welfare — to plug holes. The division would also eliminate 28 vacant state office positions and rely on furloughs.

“My philosophy has been that with the local caseworkers, we need to make sure they have manageable caseloads and we have the staff necessary to do that work,” Rawlings said.

Rawlings said he isn’t sure how many furlough days staffers will wind up having to take by the end of the fiscal year next summer, but he wanted to give workers an idea of what to expect until the end of 2020. The General Assembly returns for its regular 2021 session in January.

“By then, we are hopeful the economy will improve, we will have some help from the federal government, we might find we had folks who retire and leave the agency, and we can get some savings there,” he said.

Earlier this month, the leaders of the Georgia House and Senate budget committees joined the chorus of state and local officials asking Congress to back $500 billion in aid to local governments in the wake of the coronavirus recession.

But with opposition from U.S. Senate leaders, it’s not clear whether Congress will come through with any aid.

Camardelle said the cuts are coming at a bad time for the agency.

He said the child welfare division is “being pummeled by the increase in calls related to neglect and abuse” as kids are out of school and at home during the pandemic.

At the same time, the safety-net programs — such as welfare, food stamps and Medicaid — are seeing a surge in applications as more and more Georgians lose their jobs and slip into poverty. Camardelle said DFCS staffers had been handling heavy caseloads even before the economic shutdown cost more than 1 million Georgians their jobs.

He said at least a portion of the $40 million in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families reserve that the agency wants to go toward plugging budget holes should be used to provide limited emergency cash assistance to Georgians desperate for money to pay their bills and buy necessities.

A coalition of groups made that argument in a recent letter to Gov. Brian Kemp and Rawlings.

“Providing one time short term direct cash assistance to families means they can pay their rent, keep up with needed bills and hopefully weather this crisis, and meet the essential goals of the TANF program,” the letter said. “The economic impact to vulnerable families would keep them sheltered, avoid the harm of eviction filings and eviction that are devastating and long lasting, and keep families from ending up homeless or living in emergency shelters, already stretched to meet the demands of the pandemic.”

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