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Colorado Gov. Jared Polis speaks to reporters at the governor's mansion in downtown Denver on July 9, 2020. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Gov. Jared Polis announced Tuesday that he will order most of Colorado’s 30,000 government employees to take an unpaid furlough to help address the state’s budget crunch.

The move — expected to be formalized in an executive order — applies to executive branch employees making more than $50,000 a year and is tiered to lessen the impact on lower-wage workers and government services.

“Absolutely it’s a time for belt tightening,” Polis said. He called the tiered approach the “compassionate way to do a furlough.”

The possibility of furloughs loomed for months after Colorado lawmakers cut the state personnel budget by $58 million, or 5%, to help close a $3 billion budget shortfall after the coronavirus led to a temporary economic shutdown.

But the flexibility lawmakers gave the Polis administration left a question about whether the furloughs were necessary or designed to open room for spending elsewhere in the budget. Most state agencies expected to find the personnel savings within the existing budget or by not filling vacant positions. And a new economic forecast presented to lawmakers Friday found a rosier state revenue picture and a smaller projected deficit for the coming fiscal year. 

Even though the state is not seeing “the worst case scenario that people were worried about,”  Polis said the state is looking at a “very tough budget year, this year and next year” and needed to save money.

The administration worked on the furloughs with Colorado WINS, the state employee union recently granted collective bargaining rights under a new law. Hilary Glasgow, the union’s executive director, said the state “wouldn’t go to furloughs if there was a way around them.”

“The need for public services is up while the funding for public services is down,” she said, citing the pandemic and related economic impacts. “The need to mitigate that is going to continue to be very hard.”

Polis staved off furloughs through June in prior order slashing spending

The governor issued an emergency order slashing government spending in April and his budget director guaranteed no layoffs or furloughs through the end of June “to ensure a strong, stable state workforce” but made no such promises for the current fiscal year. 

In the prior two recessions, governors made spending reductions by executive order. Republican Gov. Bill Owens put in place a hiring freeze and reduced state services in 2002 and 2003. Democratic Gov. Bill Ritter went further, requiring furloughs for executive branch employees.

This year, Colorado government employees once again took the hit in the budget cuts. The legislative Joint Budget Committee eliminated plans for a 3% pay hike for most state workers and the employees’ contribution to the state pension plan known as PERA increased 0.5% as scheduled.

The governor’s office estimated the mandatory furloughs would reduce state spending up to $8 million.

The order does not apply to employees in the judicial or legislative branches, or to independent agencies, including the offices of the treasury, attorney general, secretary of state and college campuses.

Executive branch workers will take between one and four unpaid furlough days depending on how much they earn.

Employees who make between $50,000 and $70,000 will take one furlough day. Those making $70,000 to $90,000 will take two days while those making $90,000 to $140,000 will take three days. Any government worker earning more than $140,000 will take four days.

MORE: Colorado’s $30.3 billion coronavirus-sickened state budget explained in 10 numbers

Not all executive branch employees are subject to the furlough. The governor said necessary operations related to wildfire, the coronavirus response and law enforcement would be exempt but offered no specifics. But an estimated 23,600 employees will be affected, state officials said.

Most state workers are expected to take a furlough Nov. 27, the day after Thanksgiving, unless they are required to work that day. A year ago, Polis declared the day a state holiday and gave employees a paid day off work. Any additional furlough days are expected to be taken later in the fiscal year, which ends June 30.

“This is hard news to share,” Polis told state workers in an email sent one minute before the governor’s office announced the furloughs to the public. “I know many are struggling and have made both personal and professional sacrifices to make ends meet and successfully provide services the public depends on. I assure you that every effort will be made to minimize the impact of these shortfalls on your jobs. There are few easy choices in times like these.”

State lawmakers thankful to avoid layoffs in state employees

The legislative budget committee on Friday pressed the Polis administration on how it would achieve the 5% savings in personnel but never received a straight answer. 

State Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, a Democratic budget writer from Arvada, said the furloughs are “unfortunate and nobody would like to see them,” but she said the move fits in line with what other state and local governments are doing to reduce their costs.

“When we were looking at the budget and what the potential impact would be to our workforce, we were very mindful of our actions and implications for state workers,” she said in an interview after the announcement. 

MORE: Colorado lawmakers began slashing the budget and state employees are bracing for the worst

The legislature’s goal, she added, was to avoid layoffs. “We were hoping that we wouldn’t have to reduce our state workforce particularly now when many sectors of our workforce are needed more than ever,” Zenzinger said.

Earlier this year, the General Assembly considered a bill to declare a fiscal emergency — a move that would have applied the furloughs evenly to all employees except certain law enforcement and human services employees. The legislation did not advance and control of the furlough structure was left to the governor’s office.

State Rep. Daneya Esgar, the budget committee chairwoman and a Pueblo Democrat, said the sacrifice of government workers in these unprecedented times does not go unnoticed. She pledged to work to protect them in the next year’s budget process, which begins in November. “State employees are the backbone of our government, and their service to our communities is essential during these deeply challenging times,” she said in a statement.

Staff writer Jesse Paul contributed to this report.

John Frank is a former Colorado Sun staff writer. He left the publication in January 2021.