New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell at a Jan. 4, 2021 press conference. (Michael Isaac Stein/The Lens)

The New Orleans Civil Service Commission gave the green light to Mayor LaToya Cantrell on Thursday to reimburse thousands of city employees for partial furloughs that were instituted in October in response to the coronavirus crisis. The furloughs were fully lifted in March. 

The price tag of the reimbursements wasn’t mentioned during Thursday’s meeting, and a Cantrell spokesperson didn’t immediately have that figure when asked after the meeting. But The Times-Picayune/New Orleans Advocate reported just days before the furloughs ended that they had saved the city $23 million. 

The commission also voted on Thursday in favor of a plan from the Cantrell administration to offer one extra leave day as an incentive for any employee who gets fully vaccinated by Sept. 30. That plan will still need approval from the City Council before going into effect, however, according to the city’s Chief Administrative Officer Gilbert Montaño. 

It was unclear if the furlough reimbursements will also require a City Council vote. A city spokesman didn’t immediately respond to that question. 

Cantrell initiated partial furloughs for a huge swath of city employees in October, as the city was dealing with the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic and the deep impact it had on the city’s budget. Officials estimated that the city took in $150 million less in recurring revenue — from taxes and fees — than it expected to in 2020. Some of that was offset by unanticipated one-time revenue, including emergency federal funding allocated to local and state governments by Congress to deal with the pandemic.

“We essentially borrowed money from city employees to ensure we could balance and provide the services needed to the public,” Montaño said on Thursday

The formal furloughs were only for “classified” employees — the majority of the city’s workforce, roughly 4,000 people, who are covered by the city’s Civil Service Rules. The furloughs were further narrowed to only classified employees making $35,000 a year or more.

Starting on Oct. 8, those employees were furloughed one day every pay period — typically every two weeks — amounting to a 10 percent pay cut for full time employees. On Jan. 3, the Cantrell administration lifted furloughs for employees of the city’s public safety agencies, which represented about half of the furloughed employees. For everyone else, the furloughs ended on March 20.  

The city’s roughly 600 “unclassified employees,” who are typically political appointees in managerial positions, also had to take a 10 percent pay cut. But unlike classified employees, unclassified workers had to keep working normal hours.  

The Civil Service Commission decision only applies to classified employees. But Cantrell spokesperson Beau Tidwell told The Lens in an email that unclassified employees were being reimbursed as well. 

The Cantrell administration has long said it would try to reimburse city employees for the furloughs if the city’s financial situation significantly changed. 

“What has changed from when we first made the request is obviously there has been vaccination provided,” Montaño said on Thursday. “Things are beginning to open up, restrictions are decreasing, sales tax is increasing.”

The other vital factor was $375 million in federal aid from the American Rescue Plan, passed by Congress in March, Montaño said. Montaño was careful to not directly tie those funds to the reimbursement plan, cautioning that the federal government has yet to finalize rules for how that money can be spent. But he said the money vastly improves the overall financial outlook for the city over the next few years. 

The Civil Service Commissioners who spoke, as well as the four public commenters, were all supportive of the plan, and it passed unanimously with little debate. 

Michael Isaac Stein

Michael Isaac Stein covers New Orleans' cultural economy and local government for The Lens. Before joining the staff, he freelanced for The Lens as well as The Intercept, CityLab, The New Republic, and...