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23,000 state employees wonder about their future

MnDOT employee Roxanne Wilder of Eagan wheels her plants out of the Department of Transportation building.
MinnPost photo by James Nord
MnDOT employee Roxanne Wilder of Eagan wheels her plants out of the Department of Transportation building.

Laurie Franklin, freshly laid off from the Minnesota Department of Human Services, lived paycheck to paycheck. Now she won't get one.

In preparation for the government shutdown that hit Minnesota July 1, Franklin contacted her local credit union and her credit card companies to let them know payments might not come this month. She told her daughter that her part-time job at Target is the family's only source of income.

She's also one of up to 23,000 state employees who won't return to work for the people of Minnesota starting today.

As budget negotiations between Gov. Mark Dayton and the Republican Legislature crumbled last night, so did state employees' chances to keep their livelihoods for as long as the impasse remains.

Nelson Cruz, A MnDOT employee, and his wife, who also works for the state, welcome the time off. But it won't be long until money problems surface if the shutdown drags on.

"We'll be comfortable for the first week or so, but after that we'll be in trouble," Cruz said.

Still, he said it's nice that state employees will continue to receive health care and other benefits under an agreement made with their unions that the state announced Thursday.

But Cruz' cautious anxiety over his finances seemed universal among the MnDOT employees departing work Thursday afternoon unsure if they'd be able to return to their jobs — all because of circumstances far out of their control.

ID badges turned in
Alone or in small groups, they trailed past Al Schwarting, a MnDOT customer service specialist. As they left the building, many had to hand him their ID badges.

For security — to make sure the building is locked during a shutdown, Schwarting explains.

Others carried small plants — the result of a directive to make sure they don't dry out once the building is inaccessible — or hauled boxes out the glass front doors. Roxanne Wilder, another MnDOT employee, wheeled out six potted plants on a cart just after 4 p.m.

But the humorous sight and Wilder's smiling face belied the apprehension she feels over being forced out of her job.

"It's very frustrating," Wilder said. "I can't afford it, but some of [the] others really can't afford it. It's really not fair to us."

That frustration managed to boil over in sarcastic calls as employees passed each other on the way out. "See you on the other side!" one yelled. Another added, "We'll see you sometime."

It even surfaced in Schwarting's phone conversations with citizens calling MnDOT for information. He was forced to explain a then-likely and now very real government shutdown meant that traffic cameras on Minnesota's highways operated by the DOT were down until further notice.

For Schwarting, this shutdown — however historic — feels like a repeat. He worked at Northwest Airlines with Tom Connolly, a MnDOT custodian, during a 2005 strike where they were replaced by cheaper workers.

This time around, the front desk attendant cashed out his $3,000 retirement from Northwest so he could stay afloat while his employment stands on loose footings.

"At least that will hold me for a couple of months with rent and food and stuff like that," he said. But that also means he won't be able to roll the money into a MnDOT 401k like he'd planned.

Although a shutdown seemed inevitable to many, now that it's here, it's hard to gauge how long it will last. Will state employees be out of work for weeks, or even months?

'It's hard'
It appears many will have trouble lasting that long.

"It's hard," Franklin said. "I am a sole supporter of my college student daughter and my 8-month-old granddaughter."

Roughly 2,400 or nearly 40 percent of DHS workers (not all full time) will be laid off, according to the agency. Federal programs like Medical Assistance and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families will continue running because a court ruled them part of essential state services in a shutdown.

Other programs, like low-income child-care assistance and deaf services, didn't make the cut.

Franklin, Micko Brown and Julie Sullivan — who all worked in child-support services — lost their jobs.

In preparation for the shutdown, additions to various child-care computer systems and updates for new federal and state laws at DHS "ground to a halt." So, not only are state employees temporarily out of work, but a shutdown is "stopping us from being able to move forward with the things that people need," Brown said.

Wilder — one of the roughly 4,765 MnDOT employees deemed nonessential (out of 5,000) — took it one step farther. "The reason we're here is because we work for the people of Minnesota," she said. "They're the losers."

When deciding state government's core services, Ramsey County Chief Judge Kathleen Gearin adopted a narrow list almost identical to the governor's. Her ruling translates to shuttered state parks, heavily reduced staffing at the Department of Natural Resources and other agencies and severely limited programming.

But despite the steep layoffs, Dayton's budget proposal strongly defends state employees. It's one of the many disagreements he had with Republicans that led to the shutdown.

"This is a night of deep sorrow for me because I don't want to see this shutdown occur," Dayton said on Thursday, "but I think there are basic principles and the well being of millions of people in Minnesota that would be damaged not just week or whatever long it takes, but the next two years and beyond with these kind of permanent cuts."

It seems like many state employees appreciate his persistence — att least the hundreds of Minnesota Association of Professional Employees members and other union supporters rallying at the Capitol steps Thursday night did.

"I strongly urge Gov. Dayton to stand strong," Franklin, a MAPE member, said as she sat on the Capitol steps. "I'm going to be without a paycheck, but he can't give into [the Republicans]."

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Comments (7)

This is what happens when you elect a rich guy to be governor who's never needed to live off a paycheck.

Oops, you mean this is what happens when you have a legislature that keeps itself being paid -- no matter what -- while the little fellers are deprived of the basics. Remember, the Legislature is working very hard to protect every last penny of the rich. To them, it is only the rich and privileged that matter.

Besides, the Legislature is also working very, very hard to ensure that the poor little rich guy who owns the Vikings gets public funding. My, my, my.

Dennis
Oh please. You are, of course, entitled to your opinion, but judging from the total lack of response to your comment, I'd guess the other readers are, like me, stunned by the lack of original thinking contributing to a solution here. Check the other MinnPost article soliciting comments on the shutdown for some nuanced response and creative thinking on how to break the impasse.

Governor Dayton may not have the personal experience, but he has more heart for the trials of working Minnesotans than most.

That's rich Dennis. This right after the woman who _is_ living paycheck to paycheck states quite4 clearly she supports the Governor.

No, the blame lies entirely with the Republicans. Dayton has offered numerous revenue alternatives. It's the Republican refusal to add any revenue to their budget, which is currently $400 million less than that of the last biennium, that is the hold up here.

It won't help the state employees situation but I apologize to the state employees who are out of a job until this is over. Thank you for the fine work you do!

This fight is not about the employees but it is a fight that needs to be held. The Republicans have screamed for year that we need tax cut to stimulate jobs. Tax rates are the lowest they have been in my memory and still no growth that they talk about. Their theory is totally wrong headed and proven to be so. We had 8 very long years of George W. Bush and his tax cuts and negative job growth. The Republican's stood by voiceless while Bush spent our country into oblivion. The Republican's all of a sudden think they have all the right answers when it is the same answers that got us into this mess. It is time for the Republican's once again to be VOICELESS until they come up with a leader willing to work for ALL the people not just the special few that will fund their next election. It is past face saving time for the Republican's because the public already blames the budget intransigence on the you, and rightfully so. Game time is over! It is time to get serious and get back to work and bring the state employees back that you have so callously disregarded with your self serving ways.

If we'd elected the "other guy", we'd be seeing what's happening in Wisconsin, which is a different kind of shutdown. For the Republicans, "drowning the government in the bathtub" is the endgame; the only variable is how fast you get there.

Speaking of electing a "rich guy", there's GW Bush who left the U.S. in a bigger fiscal mess than TPaw left in Minnesota.
Let's hope our rich guy can get some Republican help in cleaning up the mess he inherited.