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Council Approves Voluntary Separation Program for Santa Monica City Workers

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By Jorge Casuso

April 15, 2020 -- Hoping to avert massive layoffs due to the coronavirus shutdown, the City Council on Tuesday voted to offer lump sum payments to full-time municipal workers who voluntarily leave their jobs.

The Voluntary Early Separation Incentive Program (VESIP) unanimously approved by the Council offers $5,000 to full-time workers with at least five years of service and $15,000 for those with at least ten, plus 18 months of basic medical benefits.

The last day of employment for City staff who choose to participate in the VESIP will be May 9.

“COVID-19 and the economic repercussions have had devastating impacts across our country,” said Mayor Kevin McKeown.

“Santa Monica, like communities across America, faces the daunting task of rebuilding our economy, adapting how we live, and restructuring how our government operates.”

The move is part of sweeping and immediate cutbacks City officials say are needed to bridge a $226 budget gap created by the government-mandated shutdown ("City Faces $226 Million Budget Gap Due to Coronavirus Shutdown," April 13, 2020).

"We are going to burn through $100 million," City Manager Rick Cole warned the Council, "and still have a $120 million hole in next year's budget.

"Even important priorities will have to be postponed," he said. "We will have to make choices that are unprecedented in their negative impacts."

Within a month after the City declared a local emergency on March 13, it had furloughed more than 600 "as needed" employees, postponed contracts and halted or dramatically scaled back capital improvement projects.

City officials set aside $1.8 million in hopes several hundred members of what is one of California's highest paid workforces will accept the first voluntary separation offer in Santa Monica history.

But City officials acknowledge the cost of the program "is difficult to estimate because it is unknown how many of the eligible staff will avail themselves to this program."

City staff will return to the Council on May 5 with a proposed plan to restructure City operations and balance the budget, which has seen a steep decline in revenues from shopping, tourism, dining and entertainment.

The plan is expected to include deep cuts to programs and services and, if few workers reject the VESIP offer, massive layoffs.

"Ideally, we’d have time for a thoughtful, collaborative process," Cole said, "but as we’ve seen events are moving with breathtaking speed.

"The longer we wait to make hard decisions, the greater the long-term threat posed to essential services and the staff who provide them,” Cole said.

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