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State employees speak: ‘When something shuts down, it shuts down’

The committed workers I’m hearing from are angry and frustrated and, more than anything else, they just want to do their job and they want Minnesotans to know how essential their work is.

State employees speak: "When something shuts down, it shuts down."

State employees are beginning to receive layoff notices as Gov. Mark Dayton and Republican lawmakers continue their staring contest. Since I first asked state employees to share their experiences preparing for a possible government shutdown I’ve received close to 100 responses. The committed workers I’m hearing from are angry and frustrated and, more than anything else, they just want to do their job.

And they want Minnesotans to know how miessential their work is. “I hope people understand that its not just the parks and weigh stations that are going to be affected by the shutdown,” wrote an employee of the Department of Health. “We’re involved in all aspects of the health of Minnesotans. Think water testing, contagious disease outbreak testing and investigations, food outbreaks, unexplained deaths and illnesses.”

Another Health Department worker picks up where the last person left off: “Often our work is unnoticeable and behind the scenes. In the event of a shutdown, a major ‘incident’ could really put a spotlight on the vital public services we provide, in collaboration with others. If during a shutdown there was a foodborne illness or other disease outbreak, public health emergency or disaster, our work will be sorely missed and our absence will be high profile. Our services will be missed by all Minnesotans, rich or poor, although they may not realize it.”

From a Department of Human Services employee: “The poorest of the poor will be affected if there is no staff to support the system that generates the public assistance benefits.” That’s something I’m hearing a lot of. Many state employees serve as a lifeline for Minnesota’s most vulnerable. There is a desperation as these workers wonder if they will be considered “essential,” a fatalism in some who are sure they will be laid off, and a deep concern among all of them for the stability of their clients who may be deprived of economic, psychological, or other counsel from the state.

An employee at the Department of Employment and Economic Development provides a practical example: “My clients are unemployed. Most of the time, with bi-monthly guidance, they are fine. Daily, however, I have two or three clients who need extra help right now as they have a job offer and are negotiating salary or they are losing a home or in need of a referral to a health care provider, or….”

An employee involved in support services across all agencies laid out the blunt reality of the moment: “The pro forma work of preparing for shutdown is dutifully underway. What gets done and when and how is pretty much all laid out in protocol. Every agency has its own routine, with the two support agencies (Minnesota Management and Budget and the Department of Administration) riding herd for overarching consistency and legality. The work itself is dull and emotionless, but I can’t say the same for what is inside the folks doing it. But note that the logistical work involves very few people. Most folks go about doing their work, and there really isn’t a lot of planning to do. When something shuts down, it shuts down. You don’t do alternatives, you don’t do contingencies, you simply shut down.”

Starting this week things should really begin to come into focus. Many of the fears expressed to me have been speculative. Agency upper management types are still working out how a shutdown will look. That speculative phase is coming to an end, however, and soon state employees at all levels will have a clear sense of what their agency will carry on with and what they will shut down.

State employees, please continue to be in touch. As you learn specifics, share them using the simple and secure form we created at the start of this crowdsourcing project. Thank you for helping us cover this story.

A note about the identity of state employee sources: MinnPost has a detailed database of information on all state employees and we are using it to confirm the identities of the people who contact us through the crowdsourcing form. When an employee does not provide a full name and contact information, we do not publish their comments. When the information is personal, as in my post The waiting game: What state employees are doing at home to prepare for the shutdown, we use first names only. When the information is related to a person’s work, as with the information in this post, we identify only the agency they work for.

More voices (updated 6/15/11)

“While most of the people I manage are unhappy about the prospect of a shutdown in terms of what it means for them financially, they’re even more upset about the fact that projects they care deeply about may fall behind, miss deadlines, etc. They often work with partners from other organizations, and they don’t want to let those partners down. That’s a bigger deal than a temporary layoff for many of them, and I continue to be impressed by their integrity and their willingness to put their work first even when they are faced with a layoff and continuing vilification from some quarters.

“For a number of us, we’re more than willing to take the short-term pain of a layoff if it means a better negotiated deal at the other end. It’s not the shutdown that worries me, it’s what we emerge to on the other side. Yes, we want a solution. And yes, we want to avoid a shutdown. But not if it means sacrificing those principles and living with a horrible, short-sighted all-cuts budget.”  — Employee from the Department of Health

“Several employees are pursuing opportunities outside the state system including me. One employee called in today and said they are retiring effective today. More and more employees are either retiring or leaving state service. This coupled with the fact that massive retirements are predicted over the next few years means that the state may have trouble finding skilled professionals. Knowledge and skills are leaving in droves.”  — Employee from the Department of Health

Keep reading! The Intelligencer covers the shutdown: