Tens of thousands of workers face job losses, pay cuts as state trims spending

They teach philosophy and math, counsel college students, help run campuses, tend to the grounds of state facilities, enforce standards for police officers, keep farmers markets open, staff efforts to help addicts and the mentally ill, do farm work for agriculture research sites and investigate possible tax fraud.

And they’re all in jobs that will be eliminated under budget cut plans submitted last week to meet the state’s goal of slashing budgets 14% because of the revenue decline brought on by the coronavirus recession.

More than 1,000 people in jobs - some part-time, many full-time - would see their livelihoods vanish at a time of record unemployment.

The tsunami of unemployment swept over Georgia when businesses closed because of the pandemic. But many of the state employees would lose their jobs at a time when the need for government services will likely increase.

In addition, tens of thousands of state employees who keep their jobs would see their salaries cut - in some cases dramatically.

The Georgia State Patrol said it would furlough officers and other staffers 12 to 24 days next fiscal year. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation would furlough some staffers two days a month. The agency that oversees the District Attorneys program listed 44 days, or almost almost nine weeks.

Workers in the division that investigates child abuse complaints and signs up the poor for services such as food stamps would take 24 furlough days, although the agency’s director said that would be re-evaluated at the end of the year.

Almost five weeks without pay amounts to about a 10% pay cut for thousands of state workers, many of whom are paid in the range of $30,000 to $50,000 a year.

“Layoffs, furloughs and hiring freezes will only slow Georgia’s economy and exacerbate the problems underscored by COVID-19,” said Danny Kanso, an analyst for the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute think tank.

But the impact on the employees differs from agency-to-agency, according to the plans submitted.

While law enforcement, or staffers in the Department of Public Health who have been working on the coronavirus response would be furloughed, some agencies told budget writers that they could make sufficient cuts without having staffers take days off without pay.

“At this time there are no furloughs or terminations involved in this plan,” Michele Gray, director of administration for the Georgia Forestry Commission wrote to budget-writers.

That could change when the General Assembly starts trying to figure out where the cuts will land. Some agencies will be cut more than 14%, some less.

The goal of lawmakers is to cut more than $3.5 billion in spending.

They 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 turned in this week are only the starting point.

Georgia senators will be holding meetings this week to go over some of the agency proposals.

The need for spending cuts came out of the economic shutdown brought on by the pandemic, which led to mass unemployment. Some businesses remain closed. Many of those that have reopened are doing far less business than they were doing in early March.

Because of that, state tax collections have plummeted and are expected to remain below normal.

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.

If approved, the cuts would impact many Georgians. There would be fewer services available for the elderly, including those aimed at keeping them in their homes and out of nursing homes, which have been a hot spot for the coronavirus.

There would be fewer slots available for parents to get their 4-year-olds into pre-kindergarten classes. There may be fewer classes available for college students, and fewer part-time campus jobs to help them pay tuition. There would be less bed space available for those needing addiction and mental health services.

County health departments would have less money, as would a host of other health programs addressing problems ranging from maternal mortality to autism. There would be less money to train aspiring doctors, inspect food, and clean up environmental messes. State Farmers Markets in places like Augusta, Savannah and Macon would close.

Funding for K-12 schools would drop by about $1.5 billion, so local boards of education would have to figure out whether to raise taxes, lay off staff, furlough teachers, and shorten the school year. Boards had to make pretty much the same decisions during the Great Recession, a decade earlier.

While the spending cuts are a repeat for K-12 schools, the University System is taking a different approach this time.

The system was heavily criticized for jacking up tuition and fees and adding staff during the Great Recession at a time when every other agency was scrimping and saving to get by.

Looking back at it, current University System Chancellor Steve Wrigley - who at the time was an administrator at the University of Georgia - isn’t sure colleges took the right approach.

“Neither of my parents went to college, and I worked my way through Georgia State by filling textile orders in a warehouse and later loading trucks on the midnight sort at UPS,” Wrigley said. “So I do understand the financial challenges students and families face and the Board (of Regents) and I are committed to keeping that in mind as we navigate the challenges ahead.

“Higher education is, and will remain, essential to advancing Georgia, and we must make decisions for the long-term good of both.”

Unsure of what the coronavirus landscape will be on Georgia campuses this fall - or even how schools will reopen and be run - the Board of Regents voted not to raise tuition this fall. It also agreed to a tiered plan of furloughs.

The budget cut proposal the system turned in this week was among the most complete of any agency, including detailing the elimination of more than 2,000 jobs - over 700 of which are currently filled by a staffer.

Georgia Southwestern State University in Americus would eliminate the jobs of three coaches. Dalton State would eliminate the chief-of-staff’s job. Georgia State University would offer more than 180 buyouts. The University of Georgia’s central office staff would trim 25.

Gordon State College in Barnesville would eliminate jobs for lecturers in math, philosophy and chemistry.

The system’s plan was in contrast to other agencies which offered few details. And a few others asked to be exempted from cuts.

Labor Commissioner Mark Butler may have the best case to make. His agency has dealt with handling record unemployment claims despite having a smaller staff than it had a decade ago.

“While the effects and affects continue to be debated, Georgians negatively impacted by this pandemic both demand and need substantial assistance .... and they need it today,” Butler wrote budget writers. “Help us help our citizens, along with those serving our citizens.

“We ask that you please not tie our hands. These are our neighbors, our fellow Georgians and their basic needs must be addressed in the short term.”