Multiple city employees who have been furloughed since May said they are in the dark on whether they will have a job to return to, or when they may be able to return to work.
“It feels like we’ve been loyal to the city and the city is not loyal back,” said Sue Barnum, a librarian who has worked for the city for about 13 years.
Library employees reached out to El Paso Matters, saying they have not had any updates from the city on what will happen to their jobs, or what will happen at the end of the year-long furlough policy approved by the City Council in April.
“The city has a large group of employees that have been loyal to the city for years, and are being forgotten about and swept under the rug,” Barnum said.
Barnum said she spoke during public comment at a City Council meeting at the beginning of the year to bring attention to the issue. She said she and other employees also started reaching out to city representatives.
The city of El Paso placed 155 civil service employees on a furlough status after COVID-19 started spreading in the area and several city services — mainly in the quality of life sector such as libraries, museums and recreational facilities — were closed to the public.
City Rep. Peter Svarzbein, who has been advocating for city services to reopen safely, said the best way to get furloughed employees back to work is to get control of the pandemic and get amenities and facilities reopened.
“That’s the challenge is that we’re totally in unprecedented waters,” Svarzbein said. “I think it comes down to having a better sense of when things are going to be open, but I do think that we can look at how to better communicate with these furloughed employees.”
Svarzbein said he knows that the city is communicating with employees about their health care benefits that are being maintained while they are unable to work. Furloughed employees are eligible to receive unemployment compensation.
City officials did not respond to interview requests by El Paso Matters, but issued an emailed statement.
“The city continues to work on a phased plan for call-back and reassignment options for furloughed employees. It is important to note that the city has already called back some employees from furlough and will continue to do so as and when it is possible, given the health status of the community,” Deputy City Manager Tracey Jerome said in the statement.
The city said 113 employees currently are on furlough status.
The city announced on Wednesday that El Paso Public Libraries will resume curbside services at eight library branches starting at the beginning of February and the El Paso Zoo and Botanical Gardens will reopen to the public with limited operating hours and limited services beginning Feb. 10.
Barnum said she was not contacted for the reopening of the library facilities and is still unsure of when they will get more information, but is happy that some employees may be able to return to work.
“The important thing, as they say, this is like a drop in the bucket of what they could actually be doing,” Barnum said, adding that it felt like “they’re throwing us a bone.”
Related: Safe curbside library services should never have stopped in El Paso, columnist Ryan James Solis writes
City officials did not immediately have finalized numbers for how many furloughed employees will be part of the initial reopening of the city services.
“Our furlough deadline is coming quickly, May 5, that will be the one year point of our furlough and we still haven’t received any official guidance or communication about what’s going to happen if we don’t get called back to work by that point,” said a librarian who has worked for the city for 13 years. The librarian asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation by city officials
City Rep. Joe Molinar, who was sworn into office in January, said he has not received an official briefing from city staff about the furloughed employees. Molinar said he has been contacted by several employees who shared similar concerns as those who spoke with El Paso Matters.
“I believe they deserve answers. I don’t know these people personally, but if they invested years of their lives to the city of El Paso and service to the city of El Paso, I do believe they do deserve some type of answers and respect,” said Molinar, who is a retired El Paso police officer.
Barnum and other employees, who asked not to be identified for fear of repercussions from the city, said they are frustrated that the city has not been communicating.
“It’s been more than 250 days since we’ve been furloughed. When we reach the 365-day mark at that point … basically, the furlough ends. We’re not 100% sure if we’re terminated, or if they have to reclass us and have us work out of class somewhere else. We don’t really know,” Barnum said.
City Rep. Alexsandra Annello said there hasn’t been a recent discussion about what will happen to the employees if city services haven’t reopened by the time the furlough expires in May.
“I don’t know if you can simply look at the furlough policy and extend it. If you can’t, then it needs to be a conversation that people are understanding now so they can look into those options,” Annello said.
City Rep. Cassandra Hernandez also said there needs to be a discussion about what will happen at the end of the one-year timeframe. Hernandez said the council adopted the policy for a 12-month period because they were not sure how long city facilities would remain closed.
“It is imminent that that policy, that 365 days, is approaching in the spring and we need to have a discussion again at City Hall about what we’re going to do with the furlough policy, what we’re going to do with all our facilities. Then if we’re going to bring them back, if there’s a plan at what scale we’re going to bring it back,” Hernandez said.
Barnum and her colleagues said they are concerned about the uncertain future.
“I am dismayed that leadership has forgotten about us because they have and I’m not bad mouthing the city or anything. I’m just saying, ‘Hey, don’t forget about me,’” Barnum said.
Cover photo: Sue Barnum, branch manager of the public library’s Westside Branch, was furloughed from her job in May. The city has not allowed many services such as libraries and museums to reopen despite allowing most private businesses to do so. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)