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More making the most of furloughs

A growing number of workers who haven't lost their jobs in this economic downturn are learning to deal with a less permanent, but still disruptive, sign of the times: the furlough, or unpaid days off.

CHICAGO - At a time of day when he'd ordinarily be rushing off to an afternoon meeting, or checking his e-mail for the 15th time, Perry Drake stood in jeans and a T-shirt in his backyard garden, deciding what to plant next in the spring sunshine.

Drake actually would've preferred to be under the fluorescent lights of his office, earning money. But since he and other employees at Loyola University Health System in Maywood, Ill., were ordered by management to take seven unpaid workdays by the end of June, Drake used a furlough day to do much-needed yardwork.

"There's not much of a choice there, so you might as well make the best of it," said Drake, who eventually came to appreciate the recent day off to plant tomatoes, peppers and corn in his Plainfield garden. "It's ... one solid day that I can get out there and dig the ground and get the fertilizer in."

In Chicago and across the United States, a growing number of workers who haven't lost their jobs in this economic downturn are learning to deal with a less permanent, but still disruptive, sign of the times: the furlough, or unpaid days off.

For some employees, furloughs are mandated around holidays or other times chosen by management.

For others, such as Drake, there is flexibility in the timing of the furlough. But it will still lower his salary by about 10 percent, he said.

And then there are the workers who don't know what their salary hit will be week to week. They can relate to the erratic schedule of Lolita Roberts-Kirk, who worked full time as a glass inspector for a manufacturing company in McCook, Ill., for 13 years, until three months ago, when the company began cutting hours with little notice. Now it's not uncommon for her to go to work on Monday and learn she'll be off Thursday and Friday with no pay, she said.

"I'm riding it out," said Roberts-Kirk, who has used the time to enroll at Olive-Harvey College in Chicago. This way, if her work situation doesn't improve, she'll be licensed and prepared to open her own day care. "You have to make a plan."

Economists and business professors say furloughs and people taking unpaid time off in recent months has reached a noticeable high.

Although the government doesn't keep statistics specifically on furloughs, as of April, 2.8 million people over 16 years old who usually worked full time reported working only part time because of economic reasons. That's nearly a million more people than the 1.9 million in the same situation last year, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

"Every time the economy goes down, we get creative about how we deal with the workforce," said Dick Beatty, professor of human resource strategy at Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations.

Which leaves furloughed employees no choice but to get creative about how to spend their days away from the office.

At Hollywood Boulevard Cinema & Eatery in Woodridge, Ill., general manager Stephen Haywood said he has sold movie tickets to the furloughed in the last three months. Most of those theatergoers choose the comedy matinee, he noted.

"It seems like they just want a diversion from what's going on in the day-to-day," Haywood said. "Most of them, from what I've been hearing, have been taking it pretty well."

Nora Plunkett, a media relations manager at Loyola University Health System, spent the morning of her fifth furlough day jogging along Lake Michigan. The run was a welcome workout for the busy 31-year-old, who is training for the Rock 'n' Roll Chicago Half Marathon in August.

Plunkett used her open afternoon to volunteer for a non-profit organization with which she's been involved. Ironically, the charity, Bottomless Closet, works to help women in the metropolitan area get back on their feet and working again.

"Embrace that this is a reality and you should make the most of your days off when given to you," Plunkett said.

While a few days' pay here and there from employees may not seem like a major way for a company to cut costs, furloughs can make a difference. And by choosing furloughs instead of layoffs, employers tend to appear more compassionate to employees, cutting pay temporarily instead of for good, Beatty said.

But union leaders argue that furloughs cause unnecessary hardship on working-class employees who can't afford to give up part of their paychecks. Had the same employees been laid off, they could collect unemployment. With a furlough, they're stuck waiting, said Tom Balanoff, president of Service Employees International Union Local 1, which represents 30,000 service workers in the Chicago area.

Meg Heiden, 28, a finance manager at the Chicago Park District, found out this year that her office will be closed the day after Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve and New Year's Eve - days she ordinarily worked.

To soften the financial blow, Heiden opted to have the pay cut deducted as one hour less on each paycheck all year, instead of all at once. She and her husband now plan to use the unexpected time off to visit her family in Grand Rapids, Mich., at Christmas.

"They'll be happy to see us, but they'll wish the circumstances were a little bit different," Heiden said.

Dana Andrews, a legislative and community affairs liaison for the Park District, is trying to stay positive about the furlough. Andrews had a few unexpected days last year in which she dropped her child off at day care, ran errands, then went home to take a nap. When the furlough days come this year, she'll likely do the same, dozing off with hopes for job security.

"We'll all be here next year, so that's a good thing," Andrews said.

(c) 2009, Chicago Tribune.

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.