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Furloughed employees struggle to let go of work

Here's something you don't hear the boss say often: You're forbidden from checking e-mail, making work calls and peeking at your BlackBerry.

In these desperate economic times, more employers are forcing thousands of workers to stay away from work, often for a week at a time. These mandatory unpaid furloughs let companies cut costs by reducing hours rather than jobs. But unlike vacations, furloughs have rules. Don't expect pay. Don't check voice mail. Don't do any work at home.

In the ultimate work/life test, can the American worker — the one who brings his laptop to Disney World — give up his link to the office?

Bob Olson, CEO of Winnebago Industries, struggled with disconnecting during his furlough: "There's a natural urge to want to be involved every day."

Olson says Winnebago will save nearly $2 million by requiring all 500 salaried employees to take two weeklong furloughs, one during its second quarter and one during the fourth.

Olson admits having a dinner conversation without handling an issue at the office took some getting used to. He had to completely rely on his management team. His biggest challenge: "disciplining myself to not call the office or answer e-mail."

Furlough rules are clear: If a salaried employee performs any work at all during a weeklong furlough, such as answering an e-mail that comes through a work BlackBerry, he or she is owed the entire week's salary.

Conscious of this rule, Jodi Gersh, Gannett's social media content manager, says she stashed away her work BlackBerry and used her personal cell phone during her furlough week. For Gersh, the novel approach to time off turned into a weeklong battle to disconnect: "I was still on Twitter but I couldn't respond to work-related comments."

House swapping

Colleagues who traveled told Gersh that after the first few stressful days of adjustment, they found the experience "freeing." But for Gersh, travel was not an option when coping with a week without pay.

Watercooler chat led her to an idea for easing travel costs and finding opportunity in the furlough trend: She started a Web site called furloughhouseswap.com, where anyone on furlough can swap their home for a week in another city. Now that Gannett mandated a second week of furloughs, Gersh says she definitely will swap her home in Washington, D.C., and travel.

If there's an upside to mandated furloughs, which some consider a temporary pay cut, it's that this forced unplugging from work can mean truly reconnecting with family and friends. The boss can only call in an absolute emergency.

Employers anticipate more furloughs. In a poll by the Society for Human Resources Management in Alexandria, Va., 17 percent said if the economy doesn't improve in the next six months, it would be somewhat or very likely they would furlough employees.

State and local governments, educational institutions and businesses both large and small already have forced them on thousands of employees.

Volunteering

To ease the financial burden, Frank Rocha, 26 and single, is taking his 10 days of unpaid time off one day at a time. An admitted workaholic/BlackBerry addict, Rocha found the only way he could resist working during his furlough was to throw himself into volunteering.

Every other Friday, he spends his unpaid day at Childhelp Merv Griffin Village, where he works with severely abused children who are receiving treatment. "I saw it as an opportunity to be a mentor and influence kids' lives," said Rocha, a Redlands, Calif., redevelopment project manager intern, who also works as a police officer and detective.

Furloughed employees struggle to let go of work 04/25/09 [Last modified: Saturday, April 25, 2009 4:31am]

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