Times Keeps an Eye on the Workplace

The New York Times this morning looks at what’s turned out to be the surprising work phenomenon of this recession—the furlough, where companies force their employees to take unpaid leave.

The upside is that, presumably, companies have to fire fewer employees to make it through the recession. Instead of the burden falling disproportionately on some, its taken on (and cushioned) by all. And as the Times points out, some workers have even welcomed the tradeoff of more “vacation” time for less pay.

But this being America, there’s little rest for the overworked:

Some people take the time off but feel bad about doing so, out of loyalty to bosses and colleagues left to carry the workload. Others work quietly — and sometimes openly — through furloughs, because they fear for the long-term safety of their positions and hope their self-sacrifice impresses the management.

And the nature of work has changed so radically that it’s increasingly difficult to take real time off. Workers are increasingly on call—connected to the Web, email, IM, cell phones, voicemail, BlackBerry at all times. They’re never really away (full disclosure: this is my first day back from vacation).

This story could have talked more about the arc of labor relations. A graph or two of context about how this is part of a long pattern of bad news for workers would have been nice.

“I think it’s a joke,” said Roland Becht, who works at the California Department of Motor Vehicles in San Diego. (More than 200,000 state employees are supposed to have two furlough days each month.) “I’ve tried to schedule furlough time and was denied because we’re short-staffed.”

It would be interesting to know if Becht is a union worker. I’m guessing that he is since he’s a California government employee, though the paper doesn’t say so. That’s an important but missing aspect of this story: how unions subject to furloughs have dealt with them. If union workers are getting rolled, forget about non-organized workers.

The Times is good, though, at showing how companies’ “furlough” policies can be Orwellian.

“You’re not sure what they’re watching,” one furloughed man, an online salesman in Chicago, said about his bosses. “Do some people feel that they have to work those hours? Yes.” And as more people are laid off or placed on unpaid leave, the burdens rise for those left at their desks.

Might as well call it a pay cut. Those are happening too, as any Times or Boston Globe employee can tell you.

Another thing missing is numbers. The Times doesn’t print any stats here on how many workers have had such furloughs or other kinds of pay cuts. Maybe that data doesn’t exist, but it would have been nice if the paper would tell us that.

But it’s nice that the Times reports this story and gives it page-one play. It’s always good to take the pulse of the American workplace.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at rc2538@columbia.edu. Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.