State program makes it easier for employers to avoid layoffs

By ED MERRIMAN Baker City Herald February 25, 2009 10:52 am
Use of WorkShare, which pays partial unemployment to workers whose hours are cut, has increased tenfold in one year

With the economy sliding into deeper into recession in Baker County and around the state, participation is soaring in a previously little-used Oregon Employment Department WorkShare program that allows employers to cut workers’ hours instead of laying them off.

“It’s been one of those programs underutilized in the past, and use has just skyrocketed,” said Tom Fuller, Employment Department communications director.

With the economic downturn, Fuller said employers across the state have been looking for options that allow them to keep their employees on the job.

“It is a way for employers to slow down rather than shut down,” Fuller said.

Payments made on claims filed under the WorkShare program for the third week in January this year totaled $215,000, nearly 10 times the $2,176 paid out on WorkShare claims during the same period in 2008, Fuller said.

“That’s a huge increase in one year,” he said.

The WorkShare program allows employers to submit plans for cutting employees hours company-wide, or to specific groups or departments, instead of laying people off.

Debbie Gargalis, manager of the WorkSource Oregon centers in Baker City, La Grande and Enterprise, said workers whose hours are cut back are eligible under an approved WorkShare plan for partial unemployment benefits.

However, to be eligible, a written WorkShare plan submitted by the employer must name at least three workers whose hours will be cut back at least 20 percent, but not more than 40 percent, in each week claimed, according to the WorkShare Information Handbook.

Gargalis said the program provides leeway for employers to tailor WorkShare programs to meet their needs.

For example, a work plan might have a group of employees taking off one day each week or one day each month.

Employers must certify that workers enrolled in a WorkShare program worked full time for at least six months or part time for at least 12 months before the WorkShare plan was submitted.

Employees enrolled in a WorkShare plan are subject to one waiting week for which they will not receive unemployment benefits. However, according to the handbook, once claimants serve a waiting week under a WorkShare plan, they will not serve another waiting week if they are subsequently laid off and move to regular unemployment benefits within 52 weeks of their claim.

“I’ve got to hand it to employers around here. They are really trying to retain their employees,” Gargalis said.

When employers go the extra mile to keep their workers on the job during hard times, she said it inspires an atmosphere of mutual respect and commitment.

For employees wanting to improve their skills or learn new job skills that may help advance their careers, Gargalis recommends workers put the days off required under a WorkShare program to good use by coming into their local WorkSource Oregon center. There, people can take free training classes or work on self-guided computer training programs that can help improve skills in many areas, from using computer programs like PowerPoint or Microsoft Office, Excel and others, to brushing up on math, grammar or workplace safety knowledge.

In these uncertain economic times, Gargalis said it might also benefit workers whose hours are cut to spend the off time  putting together a new resume, or searching the Web to learn about skills or education they might need to pursue a career change if they get laid off.

In addition to the WorkShare option for avoiding layoffs, Gargalis suggests that during hard times when employers can’t afford to give raises to key employees, they might want to consider offering to keep their present salaries but at reduced hours.

Offering full time salary for part time hours makes employees feel valued, and it helps hold down payroll expenses during a slowdown, Gargalis said.

She said all employers need to take stock of their current situation and decide what’s best for their companies, but she said when the economy comes back, good employees who are let go today may be hard to replace two months, six months or a year down the road.