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Only half of Cook County workers took unpaid days

Thursday, October 27, 2011
Chicago Sun-Times
by Lisa Donovan

Most of Cook County’s 23,700 workers were supposed to take 10 days off without pay this year under an agreement with the unions to avert mass layoffs.

But a new report released by County Board President Toni Preckwinkle’s administration suggests only half — or about 12,000 union and non-union county workers — abided by the deal.

The balance of the staff argued successfully that they were “essential” employees and couldn’t take off the five unpaid shutdown days and five floating furlough days, county officials said. And that’s drawing the ire of at least one elected leader.

“I don’t think half our workforce is essential,” County Commissioner Liz Doody Gorman, a Southwest suburban Republican, said during a Thursday budget hearing. “We’re either in it all together or we’re not.”

Gorman’s been taking her furlough days, according to the report.

She fired a volley of questions at acting County Comptroller Takashi Reinbold — charged with compiling the furlough report — including who approved excluding staff from taking the unpaid days off.

“That would have been done by the bureau chiefs,” Reinbold said, referring to bosses in county government.

Gorman responded: “We’ve got to look at how these are managed. Maybe they didn’t push their employees” to take the days off.

Elected leaders and other bosses who have to testify in the coming days and weeks before county commissioners about their 2012 budgets will be called on to explain which of their staff did — and didn’t — take the furlough days this year.

“The burden will be on us to ask the electeds” about the furlough days, said County Commissioner John Daley, the finance chair.

The Preckwinkle administration said in February that little more than 15,000 staff would take the days off for a savings of $38 million. But in recent weeks that figure was cut to $29 million.

The report shows only staffers taking the furlough days and the amount of time taken off, to date. Another report is expected to detail who didn’t take the days.

It was expected all along that many employees working in the county’s law enforcement arm — such as the jail — or the health and hospital system serving the poor and uninsured — which provide round-the-clock services — would be excluded from the furlough and shut-down days.

However, a group of Cook County commissioners who had originally agreed to take 10 unpaid days off decided not to.

Commissioners Joan Murphy, Robert Steele and Deborah Sims eventually changed their minds and agreed to take the 10 unpaid days off.

But fellow Democratic commissioners Earlean Collins and William Beavers are holding out.

“I’m not taking those furlough days this year and I’m not taking them next year,” Beavers told the Sun-Times this week.

Preckwinkle is proposing eight unpaid days off — including six unpaid holidays — in 2012 to avert half of the projected 1,057 layoffs. That offer is in front of the unions now.

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