Image: Candy Jackson
Rich Pedroncelli  /  AP
Candy Jackson, manager of the Department of Motor Vehicles office in Placerville, Calif., displays the warning signs that the office will be closed on Friday.
updated 2/6/2009 5:37:08 PM ET 2009-02-06T22:37:08

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 $200 in pay on Friday and $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.

'People need jobs'
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 their jobs since the start of the downturn.

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?”

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

Mark Rogers of Los Angeles said he arrived at a DMV office in Los Angeles to pay $143 in fines for parking tickets and minor traffic violations.

The 47-year-old security guard was expecting to get his license back, but the office doors were closed. Rogers said he disagreed with the decision to close state offices twice a month.

“People need jobs. People need licenses to get to their jobs,” he said.

States try to preserve cash
Teresa Correa of West Sacramento needed to renew her vehicle registration, but she found the doors to a Sacramento DMV office locked.

She said she works six days a week, making it difficult to find time to visit the DMV. Now, she said, she faces a $35 late fee.

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.

Judge backs furlough orders
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.

The judge subsequently said his 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.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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