The question from Cy Musiker about Gov. Jerry Brown's new budget proposal to cut state workers' hours and pay by 5 percent showed the KQED newsman pays attention.
"Why doesn't the Brown administration want to call this a 'furlough'?" Musiker asked The State Worker during a Tuesday afternoon interview.
The answer is that politics and labor relations are driven by a sales ethic, and "furlough" has a tarnished brand.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, nemesis of state employee unions, "furloughed" workers. During his 2010 campaign, Brown said those "furloughs" were a lousy way to do business.
After The Bee broke the news last week that Brown's budget included a cut in payroll costs, SEIU Local 1000 President Yvonne Walker mentioned the "f-word" in a memo about her talks with the governor.
"First, let me say that I have made it clear that furloughs are not on the table," Walker wrote.
Then Brown rolled out a budget revision that called for furloughs. How else to describe scheduling workers to four-day, 38-hour workweeks and cutting their pay a commensurate 5 percent?
As Monday wore on and an online Bee story used "furloughs" to describe Brown's plan, the administration fired off an email insisting the word was misused.
"Brown officials fighting back hard on use of the word 'furlough,' " tweeted Kevin Yamamura, the Bee reporter whose story prompted the administration's email. "Apparently it has a negative connotation. They prefer '4-day workweek.' "
Here's a summary of how Brown officials draw the distinctions:
Furloughs: The policy imposed on workers by Schwarzenegger and the Legislature.
The four-day workweek: An agreement that will be bargained with the unions.
Furloughs: Mandated time off to save money.
The four-day workweek: An "operational change" from a five-day/40-hour week to "expanded hours" in a four-day/9.5 hours-per-day operation.
Furloughs: Racked up millions of dollars in deferred employee compensation costs. Workers took less paid leave because they took fewer vacations, time that stays on the books until it's used or cashed out.
The four-day workweek: Won't produce a bunch of banked leave.
(We'll see. Utah went to a four-day, 10-hour workweek in 2008 and state workers took 4 percent less leave.)
The State Worker asked Sacramento labor attorney Tim Yeung to weigh in on the burning furloughs versus not-furloughs question.
"The end result is the same," he said. "Employees work 95 percent of their regular hours and receive 95 percent of their regular pay."
The Twitter report about the definition disagreement prompted Voice of San Diego reporter Liam Dillon to tweet, "they should push for '3-day weekend.' everyone loves those."