NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—With a pandemic forcing unprecedented closures, eight-term Mayor Jim Cahill announced he had furloughed a number of the city’s workers without saying exactly how many.
After officials at City Hall dodged our questions for over a week, Cahill’s office admitted on April 23 that the furloughs have already affected 47 salaried workers and 225 hourly workers.
The furloughs include most of the staff in the city’s Youth Services System (YSS) program, Recreation Department, Senior Center and Public Library.
The move amounts to scheduling the workers for zero hours and paying them no salary or wages until further notice.
“While numerous employees across several City departments and divisions have made the successful transition to the work-from-home model to help maintain social distancing requirements, not every work function can be carried out remotely,” read the administration’s April 17 press statement.
The statement came one week after the public library forced most of its staff stop working.
“We are sorry to inform our patrons that the library staff has been furloughed as of April 10th,” reads a message posted to the library’s Facebook page.
“We will no longer be able to respond to telephone messages and email requests for assistance and information. However, our colleagues at neighboring libraries have stepped up to help, and online resources are still available.”
At least one library employee remains on the city payroll, however, as longtime Library Director Robert Belvin avoided a furlough. He has been with the city since 1990 and his annual salary is at least $112,283.
The changes come as the coronavirus pandemic continues to cause upheaval in many sectors of the government and economy.
Cahill’s spokesman Bert Baron publicized the furloughs for the first time in a press release shortly after 11am on the morning of Friday, April 17, two days after we first tried to ask city officials about them.
“It just makes sense to save money now while these services are not being provided so we will have the funds to fill these positions when things get back up and running,” Cahill was quoted as saying in the release.
The statement said that the furloughed workers would be eligible for unemployment benefits, and retain their seniority and medical benefits.
However, getting on the unemployment rolls is no easy task these days.
The state unemployment system has been overwhelmed by a deluge of applications for benefits recently, leaving many eligible citizens unable to file their claims using New Jersey’s antiquated systems.
While the move forces 272 city employees off the public payroll, Cahill, his department heads, and other elected officials in the city won’t be taking any pay cuts, like those being imposed on the leadership at Rutgers University.
City Council Vice President Suzanne Sicora-Ludwig praised the cost-cutting moves made by Rutgers, where over 100 highly-paid personnel will take 5-10% pay cuts.
But Sicora-Ludwig doesn’t think the same kinds of cuts are in order for herself or other city leaders.
“Elected officials of New Brunswick and department heads are working extremely hard, as always, throughout these difficult times, to keep the city functioning for the community,” said Sicora-Ludwig, adding that they are putting in “more hours, not less.”
The five-member City Council held just one telephone meeting in April, abruptly cancelling a second meeting scheduled and advertised for April 15.
Council President John Anderson cited the pandemic and a “small” agenda as the reasons he and City Attorney TK Shamy decided to give the Council the night off.
The ongoing “lockdown” of City Hall has also made it harder than ever before for this newspaper to get answers out of the administration’s officials, including the nine department heads who continue to make six-figure salaries.
New Brunswick Today first asked the city’s Finance Department about the furloughs on April 15, but never got answers from them.
After obtaining Baron’s April 17 press release, the author of this article asked him some questions about it via email but received no response.
Reached via email, Finance Director Doug Petix admitted he was not allowed to answer our questions on this topic directly.
“I have been instructed to forward all questions to either the Administrator’s Office or the Mayor’s Office,” wrote Petix.
So we sent emails to City Administrator Dan Torrisi on April 20, 21, 22, and 23, but they all went unanswered until Baron finally responded on his behalf to some of the same questions he had failed to answer six days prior.
On October 3, shortly after taking the spokesperson gig and meeting with this reporter, Baron put in writing that he would “make sure” New Brunswick Today received future press releases from the Mayor’s Office.
But the releases never came, and at the March 18 City Council meeting, the author of this article challenged Baron for backing off his word and “playing favorites” when it came to the release of pandemic-related information.
Baron admitted he had been purposefully omitting this reporter from the list of journalists that receive official press statements from Cahill’s office.
“I don’t know if it was a promise,” said Baron. “I said that I would investigate and look into the possibility, and after it was re-evaluated with some staff here, the decision was made to not add you back to that list.”
New Brunswick Today has filed an Open Public Records Act (OPRA) request using OPRAmachine.com to obtain copies of all of Baron’s press releases.
Charlie is the founder and editor of New Brunswick Today, and the winner of the Awbrey Award for Community-Oriented Local Journalism. He is a proud Rutgers University journalism graduate, a community organizer, and a former independent candidate for mayor of New Brunswick.