Lake County offering voluntary furloughs despite assurances none were planned

Despite public assurances to the contrary, Lake County administrators are asking some employees to voluntarily take unpaid time off from work because of the growing economic crisis.

The effort was announced internally just one week after a county spokeswoman said officials had no plans to furlough workers even though the county board had just approved a policy allowing such action, the Daily Herald learned Friday.

In an email sent May 21 to various county officials, Lake County Human Resources Director John Light said officials are accepting applications from nonunion employees to be voluntarily furloughed.

In response, the eight elected officials who serve all of Lake County sent county board Chairwoman Sandy Hart a letter objecting to Light's request.

In the letter, dated Thursday and shared Friday with the Daily Herald, the eight officials said they had not been notified volunteers for furloughs would be sought. They said they haven't been given a plan for any such action.

They also objected to the singling out of nonunionized employees.

"We believe this is not an equitable best practice," the letter reads. "Not only will it deplete morale, but we will not be able to meet our statutory obligations to the public with decreased staff."

The officials urged county leaders to use financial reserves to cover any revenue shortage caused by the COVID-19 pandemic during the current fiscal year rather than cutting staff.

"It is important to remember that the people working the county's front lines during this pandemic are the same people we have been asked to furlough and possibly lay off," the letter said. "They have reflected dedication and loyalty to the Lake County community. We need to protect them."

The revenue shortfall could total about $20 million, county leaders previously have said. The county has more than $200 million saved, the eight officials estimated.

The letter was signed by Circuit Court Clerk Erin Cartwright Weinstein, Recorder of Deeds Mary Ellen Vanderventer, Treasurer Holly Kim, County Clerk Robin O'Connor, State's Attorney Michael Nerheim, Coroner Howard Cooper, Sheriff John Idleburg and Regional Schools Superintendent Roycealee Wood.

The county board approved the furlough policy May 12.

Employees who are furloughed aren't paid for lost time. However, under the county's policy, they maintain health insurance and continue to accrue service credit with retirement plans.

At the time, county spokeswoman Arin Thrower said no furloughs or layoffs were planned. Some employees may face reductions in work hours, she said.

In Light's May 21 email to department heads, he said the administration is accepting applications from nonunion employees to be furloughed.

"Instead of reaching out to the employees directly, we thought it would be best to go through department heads," Light said in the email.

An application form indicates employees could volunteer for one or two weeks of unpaid time off from work in June or July. The deadline to apply was May 29.

Hart, a Lake Bluff Democrat, responded to the letter from the eight county officials with an email Friday. In it, she said offering furloughs to unionized workers would have required collective bargaining, which takes time.

Hart also said county administrators "have made it clear on a number of occasions" that furloughs, layoffs and other workforce reductions may be necessary. She said the possibility of voluntary furloughs was discussed during a budget meeting for department heads and some elected officials May 20.

That meeting wasn't open to the public.

On Friday, Hart said "nothing definitive" was planned when the board adopted the furlough policy. "But certainly there were a range of items being discussed," she said.

Hart also noted officials will have to use money from savings to cover expenses during the 2021 fiscal year because of the crisis. It starts Dec. 1.

County board member Dick Barr called the situation "a failure to communicate."

Barr, a Round Lake Beach Republican and frequent Hart critic, sided with the countywide elected officials and said the board should use reserves to cover expenses rather than furloughing employees who already are experiencing significantly greater workloads because of the COVID-19 emergency.

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