Lawmakers approve $36 million to reimburse state workers for pandemic furloughs
An interim panel of state legislators unanimously approved nearly $36 million in back pay for more than 14,800 state workers Thursday, restoring income for employees who were mandated to take 48 hours of furloughs during the earliest months of the pandemic.
The state’s Interim Finance Committee, a group made up of lawmakers from both parties who sit on both the Assembly and Senate budget committees, took the action following an announcement by outgoing Gov. Steve Sisolak in May that he would seek to restore pay to furloughed state workers.
Proponents couched it as a way to improve employee retention as state agencies grapple with high vacancy rates.
The money comes as one of the last allocations of funds the state received from the federal American Rescue Plan (ARP); less than $40 million remains out of $2.7 billion in flexible aid after Thursday’s approvals.
Outside of the back pay approved by the committee Thursday, an additional $3.4 million in back pay, covering 210 smaller state budget accounts, will be processed by the Governor’s Finance Office and the state controller.
“I think we all realize there's more work to be done,” incoming Assembly Speaker Steve Yeager (D-Las Vegas) told the committee. “This is a small first step, but you cannot start the journey without the first step and I look forward to several more steps during the next session.”
Some furlough repayments could begin as early as next week. Andrew Clinger, chief financial officer for the Nevada System of Higher Education, told The Nevada Independent on Friday that the system would cut checks for furloughed higher education workers on Friday, Dec. 23.
Clinger said the move was made to get the money distributed “as soon as possible,” and will be made using existing institutional funding later reimbursed by the state’s ARP dollars.
However, the action only applied to people still working for state agencies, and won’t go to either retired workers or workers who left their state jobs for other reasons. Officials cited logistical hurdles finding retirees, as well as rules preventing the ARP money from sitting unused, even in designated funds, as the reason.
“We made the decision to pursue these dollars as a way not only to thank people for their sacrifice and to do the right thing, but also in the hopes of retaining employees through what I hope will be a robust budget discussion related to salaries and benefits next session,” said Yvanna Cancela, Sisolak’s chief of staff.
Still, in written statements submitted ahead of Thursday’s meeting, some retired public employees questioned the committee’s decision to restore only active employees.
“To find out that the furloughs required during the pandemic event could possibly be refunded to only active employees is yet another slap in the face to those of us who have since left,” Mindy McKay, a former employee of UNR, wrote in public comment. “I’m retired yet continue to feel the pain of mismanaged government. It’s a disgrace!”
Advocates have lauded the allocation, though, even if it has come at the tail end of ARP allocations and as only a partial solution to the wider issue of state worker compensation.
In a statement released Friday, Harry Schiffman, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Local 4041, pointed to 2020 negotiations with the state over pandemic budget cuts that included, in part, a promise to restore furloughed hours.
“As front line workers, Nevada state employees proudly served our communities through the pandemic.” Schiffman said. “We are glad the state heard the voices of state employees, who have been advocating for ARPA funds to reimburse furlough leave [from] 2021, as we negotiated with the state in 2020.”
Speaking during public comment, Kent Ervin, president of the Nevada Faculty Alliance, told the committee that the money was an “important first step” in boosting a state workforce that was at “crisis vacancy rates” ranging up to 30 percent at some state agencies.
“The best time to repay furloughs was in May 2021, after ARPA was enacted … Another good time would have been when the final rules were published in April 2022,” Ervin told the committee. “But now is better than waiting for the next biennium.”
Ervin also pushed lawmakers to consider further boosting state worker salaries during the next legislative session, pointing to a 1 percent increase approved last session that was erased by high inflation and ballooning cost of living across Nevada.
The next biennial legislative session begins on Monday, Feb. 6.
Update: 12/16/22 at 10:22 a.m. - This story was updated to include new details on the timing of furlough repayments for some state employees at the Nevada System of Higher Education.
Update: 12/16/22 at 11:05 a.m. - This story was updated to include a statement from Harry Schiffman, president of AFSCME Local 4041, on the furlough restorations.