The city of Pullman has temporarily furloughed or reduced work hours for nearly 10 percent of its staff in the past several weeks because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

And the cuts could go even deeper in the coming weeks, as the fiscal impacts continue to mount.

Two weeks ago, Pullman Finance Director Mike Urban estimated that the city was looking at a $2.8 million to $6.3 million budget deficit this year, given the coronavirus-related economic shutdown and projected reduction in tax collections.

During Tuesday’s Pullman City Council meeting, Urban increased that estimate to $4 million to $6.9 million.

“The optimistic scenario would be about a 10 percent hit (to Pullman’s general fund revenues), while the pessimistic scenario is a 22.5 percent hit,” he said. “It all depends on how willing people are to come back to Pullman and spend money (as the coronavirus restrictions are gradually lifted).”

Pullman furloughed 10 employees in the Parks, Facilities and Recreation Department and Neill Public Library earlier this year, after the governor issued a statewide stay-at-home order and curtailed those activities.

The city continues to pay for health insurance for the affected employees, Urban said. They also qualify for unemployment benefits — including the emergency $600 weekly payment authorized by Congress through July 24.

And because they’re furloughed, rather than laid off, he said, they’re exempt from the requirement to continually look for work.

“They’re on a call-back list,” Urban said. “My hope is that we’ll be able to call them back by the end of the summer. I look forward to the day when we can resume activities.”

In addition to the 10 furloughed employees, another 12 Pullman employees in the parks and facilities department volunteered for a state-approved job-sharing program.

“I really have to hand it to them,” Urban said. “They worked it out among themselves and came to us with a plan.”

Under the program, workers are capped at 90 hours per month. They continue to earn toward their retirement, and the city pays for their health insurance. They also qualify for partial unemployment for the hours they lost, as well as a prorated share of the emergency $600 per week federal payment.

The program allows the city to maintain its infrastructure, Urban said, while helping to address social distancing concerns. Half of the employees work in the morning, and the other half work in the afternoon.

He noted the city has about 225 full-time employees. Depending on what happens with revenues, it’s possible more furloughs and/or job-sharing reductions will be needed before the year is out.

“We’ll be looking at going deeper,” Urban said. “We’ll look for volunteers first, then look at what’s equitable to taxpayers — what absolutely needs to be done, and then (what services have a lower priority).”

William L. Spence may be contacted at bspence@lmtribune.com or (208) 791-9168.

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