The City of Ithaca announced to city employees that it would begin seeking an unknown number of furloughs Thursday morning, via an email from Mayor Svante Myrick, who called the decision "regrettable" but the best solution for the city's long-term future.
The email was sent to all city employees, announcing that Myrick would be proposing to Common Council that the city "act quickly to minimize the deficit that we face by furloughing city employees," a result of the ongoing economic flat-lining that is being felt countrywide from COVID-19 shutdowns. The number of employees, or the percentage of the workforce that will be impacted, was not specified but Myrick said in a follow-up that the percentage would likely be 25 percent.
He emphasized that he believes this will be a temporary furlough instead of a permanent layoff, and that the city will seek to contribute to health insurance during the furlough period (though this will be negotiated with the various unions that represent employees) and provide Employee Assistance Program access. The mayor also said the city intends to maintain workers' sick and leave days so they are not lost once the workers return.
"My hope is that when and if federal aid does arrive, and the local economy starts to function, and the stay at home orders are lifted, we will be in a healthy enough fiscal situation that we can recall most, if not all, furloughed employees and can pick up where we left off," Myrick wrote.
Myrick has long talked about drastic economic implications that would result from the COVID-19 outbreak, starting when Cornell University announced that it was sending its students home on March 13. The need for furloughs seemed solidified earlier this week when the new federal stimulus package neglected to contribute money to local municipalities.
This bill is a tragedy for American municipalities and I am so disappointed that my Congressman Tom Reed did not fight for us. This will force incredibly deep cuts to services and layoffs. Thank you @SenGillibrand and @SenSchumer for fighting for frontline workers. https://t.co/eohDnWXX29— Mayor Svante Myrick (@SvanteMyrick) April 21, 2020
Myrick had previously told the Washington Post's Jeff Stein (formerly of the Ithaca Voice) that excluding state aid from the bill would be disastrous for city workers.
Ithaca mayor @SvanteMyrick on state aid: "Without this money we - along with every municipality in the country - will have to layoff frontline workers and raise property taxes through the roof." Including police, firefighters, etc— Jeffrey Stein (@JStein_WaPo) April 20, 2020
The city is facing revenue losses mixed with expense increases that could result in a gap ranging from $4 million to as high as $13 million for the rest of 2020, which would represent between 6 and 21 percent of the city's total budget, according to Myrick's email. Employee salaries make up the bulk of that money, and thus represent the most obvious area for cuts.
"Currently, we spend $560,000 per week on payroll, each and every week,' Myrick wrote. "The sooner we act to reduce that number, the less of a hole we will be in at the end of the year, the sooner we can bring back employees who must be furloughed, and the more employees we will be able to return to work. To this end, I have voluntarily decided reduce my own salary by donating 10 percent of it back to the city until this crisis is over."
The employees who are furloughed will be able to receive state unemployment benefits, and Myrick pointed out that with the extra funding from the recently passed federal CARES Act, furloughed employees will be able to earn an additional $600 per week. Ending the letter, Myrick made it clear that bringing back furloughed employees would likely be dependent on if federal stimulus money is given to local governments.
"When and if federal stimulus money does arrive and our budget situation is clear, we can bring employees back and again provide the service to the public that we are all dedicated to providing," Myrick concluded. "I know that this plan is likely to create a lot of uncertainty among our workforce. We will do everything we can to help smooth the transition and reduce people's anxiety."