Nothing better symbolizes the agony of the state's growing budget crisis than the conflict over the 40-hour workweek.
For nearly 50 years, most of the state's workers have put in a 35.5 hour week instead of the traditional 40. It was considered a perk of state employment. Now, faced with dwindling tax revenue and a mandate from the voters to cut costs rather than raise taxes, the question is no longer how to avoid the pain of the economic crunch, but what course will wreak the least havoc.
Governor Schaefer, confronted with terrible budget-cutting choices including slashing medical benefits for the poor, chose last month to sign an order to require 65,000 state employees, who are currently putting in a 35.5-hour week, to work 40 hours instead. That change, it is estimated, would increase productivity equal to 5,000 jobs, or $183 million. But the idea blew up like a political time-bomb. Assailed with protests from state employees and unions, the governor relented -- temporarily.
Schaefer says he will reinstate the order July 1, giving the administration more time to substantiate the potential savings of a 40-hour workweek. State employees are understandably disgruntled. But with the recession deepening and lawmakers struggling to balance the budget, the options by summer could well boil down to working four and a half more hours a week or facing layoffs. That would be an easy choice, albeit an unpalatable one.