Some workers are giving up pay to save colleagues’ jobs in the troubled economy.

Tom Light isn’t rich. He and his wife have three children, two grown and one in middle school. They live a middle-class life with little room for extras.

But when Light, a sixth-grade teacher at the Agnes Gray School in West Paris, learned that more than a half-dozen of his co-workers would be laid off, he did something unthinkable in better economic times: He gave up some of his pay so others could keep their jobs.

“It’s better for people to share in the burden, sort of the message that President Obama gave in his inaugural address,” Light said.

It’s a sentiment that more and more employers – and employees – are embracing.

Although layoffs are still prevalent as the economy continues to slide, pink slips are no longer many employers’ first, best answer to balancing the budget. Instead, employers are getting creative – freezing wages, requiring furlough days, cutting pay or hours and asking for workers to voluntarily return part of their salaries.

Employees say they get to save a friend’s job. And maybe their own.

Employers say they get to keep the workers they’ve spent years training and don’t have to go through hiring and training new people when the economy rebounds. They also don’t have to fire workers, sending them away to seek new jobs in one of the worst economies in decades.

“Laying people off now seems to be the last resort, not the first choice,” said Laura Fortman, Maine Department of Labor commissioner.

The trend

No one reliably tracks how many employers have tried to avoid job cuts by taking a little from everyone. But experts say it’s a trend that appears to be on the rise.

The University of Maine System decided against furlough days for workers but froze wages for 59 senior administrators, saving $300,000. Recently, 37 senior administrators also agreed to work up to five days without pay, saving $85,000.

L.L. Bean froze wages for employees and has offered early retirement to older workers in an effort to prevent 75 to 100 people from being laid off.

MaineBiz cut wages by 5 percent, telling workers they could get that money back at the end of the year if the company meets financial goals.

Lewiston City Administrator Jim Bennett has proposed freezing wages for all employees and putting off contracted July 1 raises for union workers until early 2010. The move would save the city hundreds of thousands of dollars, he said, and would save him from laying off a number of people.

The city has eliminated 50 jobs – 12 percent of its full-time work force – over the past seven years. Lewiston is now running so lean, Bennett said, that it would have to cut services to residents if it laid off any more workers. And those laid-off workers, he said, would be financially devastated.

“In the past, the private sector has been doing fairly well, so in most cases, most of the employees that were impacted, I felt, had a very good chance of being back on their feet fairly quickly,” Bennett said.

That’s not the case now.

‘It restores your faith in humanity’

SAD 17 earned national acclaim when more than 60 percent of its employees agreed to give up some of their pay to save seven colleagues’ jobs this winter.

The school system was facing a mid-year cut in state aid, and though it had found ways to trim about $400,000 from the current budget, it needed at least another $70,000. There seemed to be only one way to get that money: Lay off teaching assistants, a custodian and other support personnel, saving the remainder of their school-year salaries.

Superintendent Mark Eastman called such a mid-year job loss a “major life disruption” for those laid off. He was afraid they wouldn’t find new work quickly and he worried about their families.

People suggested donations. SAD 17 workers would volunteer to give up part of their pay to make up that shortfall and, in exchange, school officials wouldn’t lay off those seven. Eastman liked the idea, but would enough employees go for it?

Turned out they would.

“It restores your faith in humankind,” Eastman said.

About 380 of the school system’s 600 employees offered to take time off without pay, or work but give some amount of money back. Each person decided how much to give, ranging from $2 to $800.

Light agreed to give back a day’s pay, or approximately $275.

“I think it’s a pretty rough time for a lot of people. I think I’m lucky to have a job that pays well,” he said. “(Sacrificing $275) feels like very little, frankly.”

His contribution helped save seven jobs, including Jeanie Stone’s.

An intervention coordinator at Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School, Stone works with 85 teenagers at risk of failing and dropping out of school. She also leads the school’s respect team, a 25-student club that works to foster respect and tolerance among students.

Stone and her husband are nearing retirement age and they could ill afford to lose her salary now. But when she found out her position was on the chopping block, she said, “It wasn’t as scary for myself as it was to think about the kids I work with. That was the hardest part.”

Stone agreed to give up a week’s pay. Although it will hurt financially, she said, it was an easy decision to make. She was awestruck that so many of her colleagues felt the same way.

“It’s wonderful to be in a community of caring and giving people. And when hard times come, it’s amazing how many are there to help,” she said. “That’s just a rich feeling.”

But not everyone is immediately thrilled with the idea of giving up pay, even if it would save jobs.

In Lewiston, Bennett still has to get approval from the six unions whose workers would be affected by the proposed delay in raises. He’s heard that some workers are OK with the proposal; some are not.

It can be hard to sell a wage freeze to employees with seniority, people whose jobs are almost definitely safe and whose only incentive is to help another worker they may not even know.

“And so there are some people who basically say no,” Bennett said.

Still, at least one union said its members are willing to talk.

The Maine Association of Police has 49 local units statewide, including one in Lewiston, where members are considering the temporary wage freeze. Paul Gaspar, executive director of the statewide union, said his members are having similar conversations in a handful of cities, and he expects more as the year goes on.

“At the end of the day, these are the people that go home and face the same trials and tribulations as any taxpayer,” he said. “They are not unwilling to come to the table.”

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