Mayor Michael Hancock held a virtual press conference with employees across the city Tuesday evening to review and answer questions around the proposed 2021 budget he unveiled earlier that day, which calls for up to nine furlough days for some city workers, estimated to save the city $12 million.
Hundreds of questions poured in from city workers through the town hall’s chatbox feature, many of which took aim at how the furlough days would be allocated and questioned the equity of the proposed tier system, which would require workers who earn the most to take the highest number of furlough days.
The breakdown looks like this:
Six days for those making under $51,999
Seven days for those making 52,000 to 86,999
Eight days for those making $87,000 and above
Nine days for mayoral appointees
Many staffers argued that there is no way to tell someone’s financial stability based on their income, and some said that penalizing senior workers who typically make higher wages was unfair. Others suggested the city create a way for employees to take furlough days for someone else who may need the income more.
“I think it’s important for us all to recognize that furloughs are a tool, a mechanism, to keep from having to lay people off,” Hancock said, adding that mandatory unpaid days off was one of the last options he looked at in an effort to “hold our key nucleus of city employees together.”
The tiered furlough system was intentional, he said, knowing “it’s much more challenging” for someone on the lower end of the salary scale to go without pay. For assurance, Denver officials also looked to other city and state governments across the country that were deploying tiered systems as well.
Hancock pledged he would be taking furlough days just like the rest of the city workforce, which includes about 14,000 people.
Hancock's chief financial officer Brendan Hanlon also said the city is exploring ways for employees to forgo their furlough days if needed. Hanlon’s team has been working with the Office of Human Resources and the City Attorney’s Office to try and figure out a way that is “light and, frankly, not intrusive to someone’s own personal experience,” he said. “I think that’s the challenge is we don’t want this to be an intrusive process where we can say, ‘Prove that you were in need in some way, shape or form.' ”
Hanlon said his team is continuing to research how to work around legal challenges and perhaps come up with a way to pool some of those resources and make them available to the people who are most in need.
After they learned that they will not be receiving merit increases next year, employees also took issue with the fact that the Hancock administration recently negotiated a salary increase in 2022 for police officers (although the Denver City Council has since kicked the agreement back to the negotiation table).
Hancock explained that the police collective bargaining agreement reduces police officer salaries in 2021 by $5 million, which is “equivalent” to what city employees are giving back in terms of furlough days.
“2022 was really the carrot to get the union to agree to vote yes,” he said. “Obviously, if we’re unable to give city employees raises in 2022, we would have gone back to the police department to renegotiate that contract because we can’t give them raises as well.”
Some city workers also expressed wanting to work from home permanently after Hancock said the productivity of employees has gotten better since transitioning away from their offices.
The mayor said that any city worker who is non-essential should continue to work from home, and that the city will continue to manage the pandemic by implementing policies that have the smallest impacts on the economy or could lead to further spread of the coronavirus.
But staff members who are considered essential and must report to work during the pandemic piped up in the chatbox, saying they feel like the city should be doing more for them, including offering hazard pay.
Hazard pay, however, “is not something that is contained in the 2021 budget at this point in time,” Hanlon said.
Karen Niparko, the executive director of the city’s Office of Human Resources, said hazard pay is a topic that comes up every two weeks when she speaks with HR executives from other cities across the nation. “We’ll continue to watch hazard pay,” she said, “but right now, many cities are not implementing it and we are not either.”
Employees also complained that the city announced the 2021 budget, and the scheduled furlough days, to the media before to city employees.
Hanlon said due to the challenges of the budget environment and the “gravity” of a $220 million revenue loss this year combined with a $190 million loss next year, “my team and I were working literally up to the moments before we were releasing this book, putting the final touches on it.”
He said the meeting with city staff was scheduled the day the budget was released “so that we could get in front of you in the evening as soon as we can and lean in on that.”
As the town hall wrapped up, a small few employees voiced in the chatbox their support for the Hancock administration, praising the team for wisely navigating the city through very difficult circumstances.
“My number one objective was how do we not only save the city, but keep our city employees working and keep the city financially solvent,” Hancock said.
“We don't know what 2021 will bring," the mayor said, "but I gotta tell you, I'm looking at it optimistically that by the second quarter — certainly by the middle of the third quarter — we will turn the corner and hopefully have more people on the way to being vaccinated, more herd immunity happening, and people feeling more confident about the fact that we have defeated COVID-19, or least got it under control, and we can begin to see people doing the things necessary to revitalize our economy.”
The city will get through this, Hancock assured his workforce, “and as soon as we’re able to remove furloughs and restore you back to your full employment and full salaries, trust me, we’re going to do it.”