April 24, 2009
Furloughs force workers to cut their link with the office
The Miami Herald
Here's something you don't hear the boss say often: You're forbidden from checking e-mail, making work calls and peeking at your BlackBerry.
In these desperate economic times, more employers are forcing thousands of workers to stay away from work, often for a week at a time. These mandatory unpaid furloughs let companies cut costs by reducing hours rather than jobs. But unlike vacations, furloughs have rules. Don't expect pay. Don't check voice mail. Don't do any work at home.
In the ultimate work/life test, can the U.S. worker — the one who brings his laptop to Disney World — give up his link to the office?
Furlough rules are clear: If a salaried employee performs any work at all during a weeklong furlough — such as answering an e-mail that comes through a work BlackBerry — he or she is owed the entire week's salary.
Conscious of this rule, Jodi Gersh, Gannett's Social Media Content Manager, says she stashed away her work BlackBerry and used her personal cellphone during her furlough week. She still surfed the Internet, but only for personal use. For Gersh, the novel approach to time off turned into a weeklong battle to disconnect: "I was still on Twitter, but I couldn't respond to work-related comments."
Colleagues who traveled told Gersh after the first few stressful days of adjustment, they found the experience "freeing." But for Gersh, travel was not an option.
Water-cooler chat led her to an idea for easing travel costs and finding opportunity in the furlough trend: She started a Web site called furloughhouseswap.com, where anyone on furlough can swap their home for a week in another city.
If there's an upside in mandated furloughs, which some consider a temporary pay cut, it's that this forced unplugging from work can mean truly reconnecting with family and friends.
Going forward, employers anticipate more furloughs. In a poll by the Society for Human Resources Management, based in Alexandria, Va., 17 percent said if the economy didn't improve in the next six months, it would be somewhat or very likely they would implement employee furloughs.
State and local governments, educational institutions and business, both large and small, already have forced them on thousands of employees.
To ease the financial burden, Frank Rocha, 26, and single, is taking his 10 days of unpaid time off one day at a time. An admitted workaholic/BlackBerry addict, Rocha found the only way he could resist working during his furlough was to throw himself into volunteering.
Every other Friday, he spends his unpaid day at Childhelp Merv Griffin Village, where he works with severely abused children who are receiving treatment. "I saw it as an opportunity to be a mentor and influence kids' lives," said Rocha, a Redlands, Calif., redevelopment project-manager intern, who also works as a police officer and detective.
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