COMMERCIAL-NEWS | ROBERT TOMLINSON - A view of the Historic Courthouse in Centreville Friday. County commissioners approved the furloughs of more than 60 county employees due to the fiscal effects of the COVID-19 pandemic in the county.

County approves employee furloughs

Furloughs begin May 4, tentative end date May 31
"In my 13 and a half years of doing this, this is the absolute worst decision that I’ve ever been asked to make. It actually makes me sick to my stomach." -First District Commissioner Allen Balog

CENTREVILLE — In what many commissioners called the toughest decision they have had to make, the St. Joseph County Board of Commissioners approved signed letters of understanding with different union groups, effectively beginning the furloughing of more than 60 county employees.

The move was made during a special meeting of commissioners held via teleconference Friday. County Administrator Teresa Doehring said furloughs will begin Monday, May 4, with a tentative end date of Sunday, May 31 for employees to get back to work Monday, June 1. Any decision on extending the end date would have to be made by May 25.

The letters of understanding are with four different groups, including the AFSCME and the District Court Employees Association.

The agreement come as a result of what Doehring called the “substantial financial impact” of the COVID-19 pandemic in St. Joseph County. The county will still provide health insurance and retirement benefits to employees during the furlough period.

Employees will be furloughed in “reverse order” of seniority, meaning employees with the least length of continuous service will be furloughed first.

The letters of understanding were the same for each union group, save for the District Court employees, which added a provision for voluntary furloughs so that the department could offer some employees voluntary furloughs before going down the list of seniority.

Doehring said the furloughs would save the county “roughly” $25,000 per week.

The furloughs, which include full and partial reductions in hours, would come from the following departments, according to a list provided by Doehring to the Commercial-News:

* Administration: 1

* Animal Control: 2

* Building and Grounds: 3

* County Clerk: 3

* Commission on Aging: 27

* District Court: 9

* Finance Department: 2

* Juvenile Court: 8

* Prosecutor’s Office: 2

* Register of Deeds: 1

* Sheriff’s Department (clerical staff): 4

* Treasurer’s Office: 3

* Victim Services: 1

The possibility of furloughs were discussed during the commission’s executive committee meeting Wednesday.

Commissioners expressed their somber feelings about the move prior to the vote.

“In my 13 and a half years of doing this, this is the absolute worst decision that I’ve ever been asked to make. It actually makes me sick to my stomach,” First District Commissioner Allen Balog said. “I know that, as a county, we have no choice but to go down this path. It was nothing we as a board or administration have done wrong. We’re not alone in this; it goes across the entire country. I hope this is temporary, and that those that are affected will get the necessary support financially to be able to continue on and get them back to work as soon as we can.”

“I’m also very sorry we’ve had to make this decision,” Second District Commissioner Kathy Pangle said. “I feel that it’s the right decision, not only for the employees, but the taxpayers of the county.”

Board Chair Dennis Allen agreed that the decision to furlough employees was not an easy one to make.

“Thankfully, all the employees will be entitled to draw unemployment, hopefully, and with the additional $600, it’ll make them whole for a period of time,” Allen said. “We hope this doesn’t go long and it’s a temporary thing, and we can get people back to work as soon as possible.”

Fourth District Commissioner Dan Czajkowski said while it was difficult, it was a “fair decision” to protect the county employees and county citizens.

“Everybody needs to understand, we’re making the best decisions we can in the moment, and I think everybody has done a tremendous job,” Czajkowski said.

Fifth District Commissioner Ken Malone said he also hopes the furlough is temporary.

“We hope that it’s as short-lived as possible, but this does also help us to ensure their long-term employment with us,” Malone said. “If we can keep ourselves financially sound, that is most likely.”

Doehring said those who will be affected by the furloughs have already been contacted, and information about applying for unemployment and how the furlough will work would be sent out in the next day. She said the furloughs will not affect how the county runs business; county departments are still open and operating with reduced staff and schedules.

“We’re still doing business, and we’re still here available to perform the services that we’re required to perform, just in a safe manner for the public and for our staff,” Doehring said. “Everybody that’s been involved, they’ve been professional and courteous and have had to make tough decisions.”

Robert Tomlinson can be reached at 279-7488 ext. 23 or robert@threeriversnews.com.

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