Is a furlough in your future? Plan now.
5 ways to prepare for and navigate a furlough at your public safety department
Firefighters in New Orleans have been ordered to take off six furlough days between now and the end of the year as part of a citywide effort to balance a budget crushed by COVID-19. But New Orleans firefighters are not the only public safety personnel facing COVID-19-imposed budget reductions that are leading to furloughs, hiring freezes and layoffs.
A furlough is a mandatory, temporary layoff that is unpaid. In some industries, furloughs might be for consecutive days, weeks or even months.
In tourist-dependent communities, like New Orleans, COVID-19 has drastically reduced sales and room tax revenues. At the same time, many of those communities have incurred increased expenses from overtime staff during the pandemic and periods of civil unrest, as well increased purchasing of PPE.
But no community is immune to the fiscal impacts of COVID-19. If the leaders and elected officials in your area aren’t already discussing furloughs, permanent layoffs or hiring freezes, they are likely to begin those discussions soon. Now is the time to adopt a furlough mindset to prepare for “when I am furloughed” rather than “if I am furloughed.”
Here are a few ideas to help you prepare for and navigate a furlough:
1. Know your rights as an employee
Is your employment “at will,” or is it governed by a collective bargaining agreement or some other form of contract? If you are an at-will employee, your employment can be terminated at any time, with or without cause. You might also be at risk of being furloughed with limited notice.
If you are covered by a contract or collective bargaining agreement, review the terms for how furloughs will be announced and assigned. Will furlough days be assigned to all personnel, like was the case in New Orleans? Or will assignment, seniority or other factors be taken into consideration?
2. Participate in budget-balancing discussions and decisions
Elected officials, municipal staff and public safety leaders are likely meeting regularly to discuss options to overcome budget shortfalls. Either through union representation or direct engagement, find a way to participate in those discussions. Make sure your voice is heard.
The “people will die” and similar fear-invoking arguments didn’t seem especially effective in the aftermath of the 2008 recession and will likely not land with elected officials and citizens already overwhelmed by hyperbole in the current polarized political climate. Focus on factual, well-reasoned talking points that are backed up by department data, such as response time, national standards for apparatus staffing, and accreditation requirements for training.
3. Plan for the pay reduction
Losing six days of pay for a 24-hour workday – 144 work hours or 7% of a work year – is a significant loss of income. Smaller paychecks may impact scheduled auto-withdrawals for rent or mortgage payments, car payments, utilities, insurance, retirement and college savings, and other expenses. As needed, pause some or all of those automatic payments.
If a furlough is looming, consider deferring major purchases like a home, vehicle or vacation. It might be better to keep earning a few cents of interest on the down payment you have been saving to work until your work schedule returns to normal.
Hopefully your city has been able to absorb some of the budgetary impact from COVID-19 with an emergency or rainy-day fund. Now is the time, if you don’t have an emergency fund, to park $500 to $1,000 in a low-risk, low-yield savings account. Emergencies, like repairing the furnace or fixing a roof leak, rarely happen when it is warm, sunny and cash is flowing regularly. Create your own rainy-day fund for the rainy days ahead.
If your income and financial circumstances allow it, consider building that emergency fund up until it will cover three months of major expenses, like housing, utilities and food.
[Read next: A firefighter’s guide to financial preparedness]
4. Find other work
A short furlough might be enough time off to start another full-time or part-time job, but many public safety personnel already have a side hustle. Some income is better than no income and reduces the risk of depleting your emergency fund. Start looking now for those opportunities, which, you never know, may lead to your post-public safety career.
5. Make the most of a furlough day
I wouldn’t wish unpaid time off on anyone, but the adage, “when life gives you lemons, make lemonade” is a reminder that we can choose our attitude and how we spend our time. Furlough days might be a chance for:
Visiting parks, outdoor spaces and other low-cost attractions with your family.
Assessing your physical and mental health and setting goals to destress, lose weight, exercise more or change your diet.
Organizing your finances to set the foundation for setting aside money for an emergency fund, reducing debt and saving for retirement.
Volunteering for a community, youth or faith-based organization that needs people of strength, good character and compassion for others.
Advocating for public safety funding to local, state and federal elected officials.
Choice of last resort
I am hopeful that a furlough is not forced upon any police officer, firefighter, EMT, paramedic or corrections officer. My strong advice to any local government leader is to make furloughs and layoffs the choice of last resort.