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Hall employees praise furlough reduction
Next unpaid day off will be in November
Firefighter-paramedic John Murray checks the contents of his vehicle at the Hall County Fire Services Station 7. Murray is just one Hall employee who believes the reduction in furlough days will improve service.

For the first time in four years, Hall County employees will work an entire month without having to take an unpaid day off.

That’s after the Hall County Board of Commissioners passed the fiscal 2013 budget that reduced furlough days from 12 to three.

In fact, the next furlough day will not be until November.

The move is expected to ease financial restraints on employees of Hall County government — one of the county’s largest employers — but could also improve government services.

County employees have said all along that furloughs are more than just a pay cut — they are a reduction in service to residents, too.

That’s the point county officials have been trying to highlight after the commissioners passed the fiscal 2013 budget last month with its reduction in furlough days.

The reductions in furloughs, coupled with the reinstatement of county contributions to employee
retirement, amounted to a pay and benefit increase for the roughly 1,300 county employees.

For some residents, furlough days can be a direct inconvenience.

Rosa Pizano is a deputy clerk in the Clerk of Courts Office, where she helps residents file records and get passports.

She said it’s been a fairly common occurrence for residents, unaware of the furlough calendar, to go to the courthouse without realizing it was closed. Because of that, some had to make two trips to downtown Gainesville instead of one.

The same thing has happened at the Joint Administration Building, where residents go to get tags renewed and find tax records.

“You find people roaming the halls looking for offices that are locked,” said David Nix, a right-of-way supervisor for the county’s Public Works Department. “You find the general populace is not always aware of the furlough days.”

For others, the effects of the furloughs have not always been obvious.

Pizano said the furloughs, coupled with hiring freezes, have put a bigger workload on fewer employees. The result can be a slowdown in the courts.

“It pushes everything back into a longer time to complete (court) cases,” she said.

There have also been questions on the impact of the furloughs to public safety.

Firefighter-paramedic John Murray, a five-year veteran of the Hall County Fire Services, said the public has never been in danger as a result of the furloughs, but those days offered plenty of challenges to firefighters.

“We’ve had staffing issues,” he said.

Because the fire department can’t close on furlough days, officials have spread out furloughed shifts for firefighters. That’s led to fewer firefighters on some shifts.

The protocol for fire-rescue operations typically requires a certain level of staffing per rescue unit. Having fewer firefighters for such operations is generally thought to be more dangerous for responders.

“It puts a lot (of) stress on the guys as far as doing the job safely,” Murray said.

Shift commanders have done a good job to manage those challenges. And doing so, Murray said, has maintained public safety.

But it has led to some defections, as firefighters trained in Hall County have left to go to departments with better pay and without furloughs.

“That’s just socioeconomically based,” said Murray, “If you’re looking at the market and you have the option to go to a department that requires the same training and is going to pay more money ... people tend to go with that every time.”

Murray, however, chose to stick with the department.

“Hall County is a great place to work,” he said. “The department does take care of its employees.”

With this reduction in furloughs, he said, the county has taken strides to be the kind of department “where you can make a career and still provide for your family.”

The change has been a boost for employees countywide.

“It’s going to improve the morale,” said Nix.

Pizano added, “Just because we’re working with the government doesn’t mean we don’t have the same worries and responsibilities of everyone else dealing with the economy.”

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