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City workers feeling impact of furloughs

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

Gina Noriega, lead worker at the Genoveva Chavez Community Center, helps deep clean the bleachers around the basketball arena. She is one of many employees currently furloughed for 16 hours per week. Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

When Carla Vigil received notice that the city of Santa Fe would be furloughing her for 16 hours a week, she assumed she would be able to receive unemployment benefits.

Yet, after multiple weeks and several applications with the Department of Workforce Solutions, the city parking employee still has not qualified for any benefits.

“I’ve tried numerous times and unemployment keeps denying me,” she said.

It’s one of the many struggles facing the 1,048 city employees currently on furlough, 17% of whom must stay home for a total of 16 hours a week. Other employees were furloughed for four hours per week.

Vigil and many other city employees do not qualify for unemployment benefits because they make more than the $461 per week limit set by the state. More than 40% of employees with 16-hour furloughs do not qualify for unemployment benefits, according to a list of furloughs provided by the city.

Vigil, whose last paycheck totaled $500 for two weeks of work, said her pay does not exceed the limit, but that she has still been denied benefits again and again. Her paycheck covers her rent, but leaves little to nothing for food, gas and other bills, she said.

“How do they expect you or anybody to survive off of your check being reduced pretty much by half?” she said.

The City Council and mayor narrowly approved the furloughs April 29 in response to a projected $46 million deficit for the current fiscal year.

Since then, the city has announced an additional $100 million budget deficit expected for the next fiscal year as city revenues continue to contract amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Critics of the furlough plan have said the city’s lowest-paid employees make up the bulk of the longer 16-hour furloughs and are most impacted by the 40% reduction in pay.

When the furloughs will end, though, remains unclear. Mayor Alan Webber said last month that any furloughs or layoffs for the next fiscal year will be decided after a budgetary process in July.

Some employees are expecting the worst.

Michael Hering, ice arena technician at the Genoveva Chavez Community Center for the past 19 years, and many other city workers are furloughed 16 hours per week. He and other workers are taking advantage of the closure of the center due to the COVID-19 outbreak to make much-needed repairs to the ice arena. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

“The information we’ve been hearing from day to day is we’re definitely going to be furloughed longer than just through the end of June,” said Michael Hering, an ice rink technician at the Genoveva Chavez Community Center.

Hering, who has helped manage the center’s ice rink for 19 years, said his furlough has left him struggling to pay bills and support his family. It’s left him contemplating leaving city employment altogether, since he could make more money on retirement and Social Security.

“I may be forced into early retirement,” he said. “I can keep my head above water as opposed to trying to continue to work for the city part-time, because I can’t make ends meet right now.”

Gina Noriega, a 20-year city employee who also works at the community center, said she thinks City Hall did not take into consideration the effect furloughs would have on employees.

“The councilors have never come to the facility to see what we’re doing and how this is affecting us,” she said. “I’ve never met the mayor – he’s never come here.”

Neither Hering nor Noriega qualify for unemployment.

The project board outside the ice arena technician’s office Wednesday has dozens of projects crossed out after they were completed. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

While the pay for some employees has slowed down, the amount of work has not. Hering keeps a board of the many repairs and upgrades that need to be made to the ice rink, and said it’s been difficult to keep up since the furloughs began.

“As soon as we get some of the major work accomplished, they furlough us and we’re wondering how we’re going to get everything done,” he said.

And the sudden reduction in income has had far-reaching impacts on the families of some employees.

Antoinette Armijo Rougemont, a fiscal administrator in the city’s tourism department, said she had been saving money for her daughter’s first semester at Grand Canyon University next fall.

“I just won’t be able to afford it,” she said. “The money I’ve been saving for her first semester of college I’m probably going to end up spending on bills.”

Armijo Rougemont also said she is going to have to call creditors and ask for deferments on her student loans.

Even as the city begins to slowly reopen, some furloughs will stay in place for the time being. The city’s parking division, which makes up the bulk of the 16-hour furloughs, will start charging for parking meters Monday. Parking in the city’s parking garages will remain free until July 1.

Armijo Rougemont said she has worked for the city for 14 years and that she has “not called in sick one single day.”

However, the possibility of extended furloughs has left her, and many other city employees, considering finding a job elsewhere.

“The city of Santa Fe used to be the best place to work and everyone wanted to come work at the city,” she said. “Now, I think it’s going to be very hard to recruit quality employees in the future after what we’re going through.”