What are your plans for summer ‘fur-cation’?

What are your plans for summer fur-cation?
CORBIS/Frank Renlie

When gas prices traveled north of $3 a gallon last year, we heard a lot about people taking stay-cations in their backyards. This summer, we’ll hear more about “fur-cations.”

Fur-cation? Fur- is short for furlough. Some are calling it a furlo-cation. Take your pick — whichever is easier to pronounce. Besides layoffs and pay cuts, the recession is prompting some employers and the public sector to use furloughs, shutdowns, unpaid time off and reduced hours to save money and jobs. Now there’s a nine-letter word to describe all these, um, opportunities.

Some examples:

• Hourly employees at Marvin Windows and Doors, which has 2,700 workers in Minnesota, have been on 32-hour workweeks since January to keep everyone on the payroll. Salaried employees took a 5 percent pay cut instead and all employees are being encouraged to take voluntary unpaid time off (UTO).

• Hennepin County has asked its 8,000 employees to sign up for 32 hours of voluntary UTO.

• The Walker Art Center in Minneapolis required its 170 employees to take a week of UTO by the end of June or to give back five days of paid vacation.

A Watson Wyatt survey [pdf] in April found that such cost-saving measures have risen “sharply” since February and are likely to rise in the future. Twenty-two percent of employers have decreased hours through reduced workweeks, 24 percent through mandatory shutdowns, 17 percent through mandatory furloughs and 11 percent through voluntary furloughs.

Meanwhile, 24 percent of employers are considering shorter workweeks and involuntary furloughs vs. 20 percent who have already undertaken them, according to the survey. And 21 percent are considering voluntary leaves of absence and/or time off while 11 percent of employers have already done so.

Joining the crowd
Given that we suffer from god-awful winters, are Minnesota companies and organizations more likely to offer fur-cations this summer?

“Absolutely,” says George Gmach, a survey manager and compensation consultant for the Plymouth-based Employers Association Inc. “We like to enjoy our summers and it’s more attractive to employees. … It’s nice to be able to do it voluntarily. If it’s mandated, it’s going to adversely impact those who can probably least afford it.”

Gmach doesn’t know what he’s doing on his fur-cation yet other than taking a few unpaid days off here and there. He says he’s very busy with work just now, plus he’s a Corcoran City Council member and a board trustee for his church and a bit of a workaholic. But he and his 120 colleagues are being encouraged to take voluntary UTO to save the organization some cash. Accrued vacation and benefits will not be affected, he said.

For Minnesotans who start pining for summer in mid-January, perhaps there’s no better time to take time off — even if it’s unpaid. Over the years, some Minnesota employers have offered four-day, 10-hour schedules or variations so that their workers can enjoy longer weekends between Memorial Day and Labor Day or because business is slower.

In the throes of a recession, however, flexible “summer hours” can now mean fewer paid hours. Some fur-cationers have taken matters into their own hands, setting up an online home-trade service called FurloughHouseSwap.com. Just because you’re on a fur-cation doesn’t mean you must settle for a stay-cation.

All this new vocabulary for time off prompted Arizona Republic writer Jaimee Rose to sum up the trend rather cleverly: “Vacation-staycation-furcation-frustration. Let us pray for salvation, and soon.”

Variations on the theme
Marvin public relations manager John Kirchner, a 32-year-old husband and father of two, planned to take the Friday before Memorial Day as unpaid time off so that his family could spend more time at their cabin. He also hopes to take UTO around the Fourth of July and a few other times.

The manufacturer historically has offered unpaid leave and scheduled shorter workweeks in the winter because business is typically slow in the housing industry. But given the housing slump, the 32-hour workweeks are indefinite, Kirchner said. Most of Marvin’s 2,700 employees in Minnesota work at the Warroad manufacturing plant, while 100 are based in the Eagan sales and marketing office.

“Our facility is as far north as it gets in Minnesota, so it gets pretty darn cold and workers like to vacation in the South,” Kirchner said. In the summer, employees don’t necessarily want to leave town but they don’t mind extra time off. “Warroad is on Lake of the Woods, so they do a lot of fishing and are active in the area,” said Kirchner, who is based in Eagan.

Kirchner said he hasn’t heard any grumbling about shorter workweeks or UTO.     

“The Marvin family has done everything it can to not lay off employees and … they’re willing to lose money if it means no layoffs,” he said. “There seems to be a lot of gratitude and thanks. When you read the paper and see unemployment rising and companies closing, everyone here is willing to do what they can to share that burden.”

UTO can be tricky in public sector
For now, Hennepin County is asking its workers to sign up voluntarily for 32 hours of UTO to help close a $4.5 million budget gap, said public information officer LuAnn Schmaus. But the request could become mandatory if enough people don’t volunteer or if the county loses more local government aid (LGA) funding from the state.

Mandatory UTO is tricky in the public sector because some services such as detention facilities must be staffed 24/7, Schmaus said. “I know that there was a big movement to be more flexible in the private sector (such as taking Friday afternoons off in the summer) but our work doesn’t end Friday at 4:30.”

Schmaus is taking UTO each pay period. “Everyone is in a different position,” she said about the signup for voluntary UTO. “Some have two incomes so the opportunity is heaven-sent; others are struggling to make ends meet and every penny counts.”

At the Walker Art Center, UTO, pay cuts and other measures are helping to reduce the original $21.3 million budget by 5 percent or $1.1 million, said Ryan French, director of marketing and public relations for the nonprofit organization. Whether the 170 full-time and part-time employees choose to take the UTO or to give back vacation days seems to come down to their years of service and how much vacation they’ve accrued, he said.

There hasn’t been a big rush to take it all at once in the lovely months of May and June. “It’s more important to juggle our work schedule so that not all the people in one department are taking it at once,” he said.

Just think of the writing assignment schoolchildren will bring home this fall: “What I did on my summer fur-cation.” Here’s hoping for some unfurgettable fun.

Casey Selix, a news editor and staff writer for MinnPost.com, can be reached at cselix[at]minnpost[dot]com.

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Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Sue Wolsfeld on 05/26/2009 - 02:15 pm.

    A number of years ago, when the kids were elementary age –although even toddlers went along- a number of families in our North River Hills (Burnsville) neighborhood decided to summer vacation in-town. We called ahead and planned free tours to the US Post Office then in St. Paul; to the telephone company; St. Paul Cathedral; State Capitol; and of course to the beach. But there are many other free tours. I can recall touring backstage at the old Guthrie — ever see the prop room? I can still see the suit of armor made of metal washers standing in the corner of the prop/costume room. What about a tour of Kemps? Their home office is in St. Paul. Anderson Windows in Bayport??? Just a thought..

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