California Employees Forced to Take Off Without Pay

California drivers who needed to renew their licenses or registration found no one to help Friday at the Department of Motor Vehicles. The doors to the state health agency were locked, too.

Even Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's emergency services office was dark.

Hundreds of state offices closed because there was nobody to run them: More than 200,000 state employees had to take the day off Friday without pay to help ease California's budget crisis.

Schwarzenegger ordered employees to take two unpaid days off a month, hoping to save the state $1.3 billion through June 2010, when the mass furloughs are expected to end.

Critical services such as state fire stations and centers that process unemployment insurance claims remained open, as well as state parks.

The days off, expected to be the first and third Fridays of each month, will trim the average state worker's salary by 9.2 percent as Schwarzenegger and lawmakers try to solve a $42 billion budget shortfall.

"It feels like we're being punished because we chose a career in state government," said Shelia Byars, 47, a hearing officer at the Department of Motor Vehicles in Van Nuys.

Byars, who expected to lose $400 a month, was among about a dozen union members protesting outside the agency's office in downtown Los Angeles. She said it didn't make sense to close 180 DMV locations because they collect revenue for the state through licenses and registration fees.

The California furloughs began as the latest national unemployment numbers underscored how quickly the recession is deepening. The nation's employers shed 598,000 jobs in January, the highest number in 35 years. In all, 3.6 million Americans have lost jobs since the start of the downturn.

The Labor Department numbers released Friday also showed that California's furloughed workers were joining a growing number of people who are working less than they would like.

The jobs report indicated that the poor economy had forced 7.8 million Americans to work part time in January, meaning their hours had been cut or they were unable to find full-time work. That's up from 4.7 million a year ago.

California's unemployment rate is 9.3 percent, a 15-year high.

At the state Department of Transportation, a handful of engineers were working Friday, although they were not being paid.

Mark Sheahan, a transportation surveyor in the department's Marysville office, said the road and infrastructure projects he works on would be set back as employees take off 16 hours a month.

"We lay asphalt and pour concrete and get people back to work," Sheahan said. "Why would you ever want to stop those things when we have a budget crisis?"

In the days before the furloughs took effect, state agencies scrambled to inform the public, but that did not prevent many people from showing up Friday at DMV offices around the state.

In Long Beach, a steady stream of customers shook the locked door handle of a DMV office and peered in the window despite a large sign that read "Closed" in English and Spanish.

Bob Cabeza, who came to file an accident report, was furious. If taxes must be raised to keep offices opened, then lawmakers should make that decision, he said.

"I made $200,000 a year between me and my wife, and I don't mind paying higher taxes," the YMCA executive said. "These Republicans, they seem to think taxes are taboo."

Mark Rogers arrived at a DMV office in Los Angeles to pay $143 in parking and traffic fines. The security guard was expecting to get his license back, but the office doors were closed.

"People need jobs. People need licenses to get to their jobs," he said.

A Schwarzenegger spokesman said the governor's office had "gone to great lengths" to notify employees about the furloughs and said state agencies were trying to post information on their Web sites. As of Friday morning, many state Web sites still did not carry information about the furlough days.

"Obviously, we expected hiccups with this furlough order, and this has gone remarkably smooth," spokesman Aaron McLear said.

At least a few other states are pursuing the same strategy as California — trying to preserve cash as tax revenue plunges. Furloughs for state employees, as well as pay cuts, reduced benefits or shorter workweeks have been proposed or adopted in Ohio, Maryland, Hawaii and elsewhere.

The governor had hoped his order would apply to some 238,000 state employees, but none of California's other constitutional officers have agreed to comply.

Schwarzenegger's legal affairs secretary, Andrea Hoch, said the administration was prepared to sue the state controller if he did not reduce paychecks for more than 15,000 employees of the other officers, such as the attorney general, the secretary of state and the insurance commissioner.

Employee unions had sued the administration, arguing that the governor did not have the power to cut employees' pay, but last week a judge affirmed Schwarzenegger's authority to order the furloughs. On Friday, a state appellate court denied the unions' request for an injunction.

The judge had said his earlier ruling did not apply to statewide elected officials or their employees because they were not part of the lawsuit, and he therefore could not address the question.

The administration has maintained that employees of constitutional offices are covered by the furlough order.

Labor leaders said the furloughs could have been prevented.

Jim Zamora, spokesman for Service Employees International Union, Local 1000, said the administration did not respond to a union proposal that "would have prevented the closure of state offices, created an orderly, flexible and manageable furlough process, prevented chaos and saved the state hundreds of millions of dollars."

But the furloughs may not be all bad for workers: Two ski resorts at Lake Tahoe were offering discounts to state employees on furlough days, including $30 lift tickets or a chance to ski or snowboard every Friday for the rest of the season for $20.