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Johnson County, Overland Park Begin To Furlough Some Employees As Coronavirus Hits Budgets

Kyle Palmer
KCUR 89.3
With Johnson County's motor vehicle registration offices closed, employees who can't do that work from home have been furloughed.

Johnson County government has started furloughing employees whose office functions are curtailed due to the coronavirus and who can’t work from home. Overland Park is also planning to furlough about 200 part-time employees.

Johnson County's furloughs affect 46 front-line workers in motor vehicle registration offices in Mission and Olathe, which have closed to the public during the pandemic.

Johnson County Manager Penny Postoak Ferguson authorized the furloughs in an executive order Monday. The county reported 127 positive COVID-19 cases as of Tuesday morning, the most in Kansas, and three deaths.

“This approach is for employees who temporarily do not have sufficient work during the pandemic,” Postoak Ferguson said in a statement emailed to KCUR on Tuesday.

“As an organization, the decisions we have made in our COVID-19 response have been made through the lens of our values of being a caring workplace as well as being good stewards of the community’s resources. Those are often in conflict during this very difficult time,” Postoak Ferguson said.

The furloughs come after Johnson County joined other metro counties in imposing a stay-at-home emergency order March 24 through April 24, to try to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus.

Gov. Laura Kelly then imposed a statewide stay-home order beginning March 30 through at least April 19.

Under those stay-home orders, Johnson County’s motor vehicle offices closed on March 25. Vehicle registrations and renewals were extended through the end of the disaster emergency declarations.

Postoak Ferguson said the employees will be contacted in four weeks about their return. The estimated savings is about $240,000 over that four weeks for those particular employees. Postoak Ferguson said other temporary furloughs are under consideration but it was not clear how many workers might be affected.

Credit Kyle Palmer / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
The furloughed workers, from Johnson County motor vehicle registration offices, are expected to return to their jobs at some point, said County Manager Penny Postoak Ferguson.

Overland Park's furloughs, meanwhile, affect fitness instructors, life guards and other workers at Overland Park's two community centers, Matt Ross and Tomahawk Ridge, said spokesman Sean Reilly. The centers closed March 15 but the employees will be paid through Saturday April 4. Their furlough will last indefinitely, until the centers reopen.

Reilly said the furloughs in Overland Park are expected to save the city about $80,000 per month. He said Overland Park is bracing for coronavirus to take a big toll on revenues. "We expect a significant financial hit to the city's current budget," he said.

Postoak Ferguson noted that furloughed employees are eligible to file for unemployment with the state of Kansas, but these are not layoffs. The intent is to have the workers return to their jobs at some point.

“While this is a difficult decision for the county manager to make, employees have handled the news well,” she said.

The county said it was glad the federal government’s newly approved stimulus package will temporarily add $600 in additional pay to the typical 2/3 of an employee’s earnings, capped at $488, making the maximum unemployment payment $1,088 per week.

Several county commissioners said no one is happy about having to impose furloughs at this time, but they agreed with the decision for employees who could not be reassigned to other duties or work from home.

“That is the county manager’s responsibility. I do know they’ve been looking at options over the past week or so,” said Commission Chair Ed Eilert. “This appears to be the best option at this point in time.”

Eilert said other areas of county government are being reviewed but he did not know how many more employees might be affected.

“It’s definitely a tough decision,” Commissioner Steve Klika said. “We’ve got a lot of areas that have no active work right now.”

Klika said the county must be prudent with taxpayer dollars during this economic downturn. At a time when the private sector is laying off thousands of employees, he said, the county must also evaluate its workforce.

“I think we’re taking the appropriate steps,” he said. “Ultimately it’s going to be the taxpayers that are going to have to carry the burden on this.”

Commissioner Janee Hanzlick noted that while the furloughed employees don’t get a county paycheck, they do retain all their health insurance and other benefits.

“I think the way the county is moving forward is as fair as possible under the circumstances,” she said.

Johnson County government has about 4,000 employees. Commissioner Becky Fast said the county has worked hard to set up many employees to work from home, and has reassigned some employees to help with customer service hotlines set up during the COVID-19 crisis.

Other neighboring governments said they are not yet resorting to furloughs.

“Everyone who can is working from home. People who cannot perform their duties from home are still being paid for now,” Wyandotte County Public Relations Director Mike Taylor said in an email to KCUR.

Marshanna Smith, public information officer for Jackson County, said in an email to KCUR that the county has worked hard to build its reserves.

“The county’s robust financial position is allowing us to support our associates without any interruption during this difficult time,” she wrote.

A Kansas City government spokesman said he was unaware of any furloughs under consideration. But in Wichita, city government has furloughed more than 300 full-time and part-time employees who can’t do their jobs remotely from home.

Wichita city officials said the action was necessary because of the stay-home orders and significant budget challenges.

Lynn Horsley is a freelance journalist. Follow her on Twitter @LynnHorsley.

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