For state workers, the shutdown story is still being written

MnDOT Commissioner Tom Sorel, right, welcoming an employee back to work last Thursday morning.
MinnPost photo by James Nord
MnDOT Commissioner Tom Sorel, right, welcoming an employee back to work last Thursday morning.

Throughout the shutdown, and in the weeks leading up to it, we heard from state employees as they prepared at home and at work, then hunkered down for a period of unemployment with no certain end.

The story didn’t end with the special session, of course. State workers are settling back into their jobs and picking up the pieces. At home, many are still struggling with the financial hit of unemployment.

It is somewhat in vogue to dismiss state government as bloated and state workers as overpaid. Bloated in some places, certainly. Employees overpaid? Certainly some are, but they are in the minority. The majority are earning modest incomes and struggling with finances, perhaps even poring over household budgets at the kitchen table like that fabled family we’ve herd so much about this year.

I sent a questionnaire to more than 100 state employees who helped us fill out our shutdown coverage by telling their stories. Mostly, I wanted to know what it felt like to be settling back into their jobs.

If you are a state employee and you want to share your story, here is the questionnaire.

I’ll identify you by agency only, but I can only do this if you provide me with the details I need to confirm your identity.

On getting back to work (updated 7/28/11 at 9:00 AM, with the most recent comments at the top)

“I’m relieved to be back at work. I missed my co-workers. My clients missed me. I missed them too. Now we can get back to the business of finding jobs and keeping jobs in rural Northern Minnesota. I was happy when I returned to work and received a mass e-mail from Governor Dayton, who sent us a note letting us know how much he appreciated us. He called us his colleagues.”  – Department of Employment and Economic Development        

“There’s a sign outside the History Center announcing that the Historical Society is ‘Open and proud to be serving the people of Minnesota.’ That expresses how most of us feel. We want to serve, and now we can.  On the other hand, we remain uncertain because more cuts are coming.  

“There is also some half-joking talk about planning ‘future shutdown vacations.’ No one expects this to be the last shutdown, and there are feelings of resignation about that. Much was lost. Other than worrying about camping at state parks or being annoyed about a beer shortage, did any Minnesotans who weren’t poor, vulnerable or employed by the state actually care? My husband and I had a lot of conversations about public employment during the shutdown.  We’ve both worked for public museums and schools for the past 30 years. We are very concerned about our jobs being treated as political footballs.”  – Minnesota Historical Society employee                     

“It is great to be back with people that care so much about their job.  It may sound corny, but I truly believe the people I work with really care about serving the public and doing their utmost to do a great job. Our agency pretty much shut down. Many road projects were interrupted. Contractors had to lay off their employees. I don’t think the general public has any idea the preparation it took to shut down all the road projects and what it is taking to start them up again.”  – Department of Transportation employee     

“It is good to be back and really nice to see everyone. Lots of work to do and the days are going by fast. In our office we are very short handed because of retirements and cutbacks so we are always behind. Now we are just more behind.

“An interesting point is that while most people in the office were angry about the shutdown, everyone said that after the first week they realized that the forced break from work was good and they needed it. Everyone came back recharged. Most people in my office are never able to take vacations like they should, so being forced to take a break was a good thing.

“After the shutdown in 2005, we planned so that we would be financially okay if it happened again. It was nice having time to get things done. I would not have been heartbroken if it had gone on a few more weeks.”  – Department of Transportation employee    

“I expected it to be strange, but it is strangely normal. As a researcher, rather than someone processing permits or licenses or something, my work was waiting right where I left it.

“My long-term concern is that young, motivated and educated people like myself will not be interested in state government for a career. Minnesota is facing daunting policy problems over the next few decades and, as older state employees retire, we need to attract and retain capable, creative young people. Although I love what I do, and firmly believe that I serve the greater good, I cannot go through this every few years or be constantly berated in the press and at social gatherings where people don’t know I am a public employee.  It will be a shame to lose the people Minnesota needs in public service.

“So many people retired suddenly due to the shutdown, and others are leaving now.  We lost the opportunity for a knowledge transfer and the ability to retain institutional knowledge.  This has been a problem for a while, but has been accelerated.”  – Department of Human Services employee

“We were in the middle of a public notice period for a permit that was set to close during the shutdown. Now we have to restart that process because people couldn’t access the website to view the permit to review. It will set us back the exact number of days we were shut down.

“At my agency it is a much brighter picture now than it was before the shut down. There was much talk of layoffs before, now word is “we think we can avoid” layoffs, so that is good.”  – Pollution Control Agency employee

“It’s very good to be back. We received a supportive note from our Commissioner, which was nice. We also received an email from Governor with information and appreciative comments.

“I have worked the state off and on with forays into the nonprofit world for almost twenty years. At no time prior had I ever received any communication from the organization’s CEO, the governor.

“That said, it was terrible before and during the shutdown to feel so demeaned and vilified by the Republican legislators and their supporters. I work here because I believe in public service and my contribution toward the public good, but they apparently mistakenly think I’m making a huge salary (not true—and I made more at nonprofit jobs). I cannot understand that perspective.    

“Our work has been and will continue to be affected by the backlogs of the other agencies to whom we provide assistance and support. Although low morale has been impacting our productivity to some extent, our mutual support and dedication to our work is offsetting that. Still, it’s been difficult.

“The uncertainty about how the upcoming cuts will play out in terms of programs and services is also difficult. We care about what we do, so eliminating important work will hit us hard. At this point, we have no idea what the impact of cuts made by the Legislature will be.”  – Management and Budget employee    

“It is very odd. I am happy to have employment again, but very jaded. I feel like a dog on a leash that was told to sit and stay and the second they jerked the leash back ,I had to heal and fall back into line. The atmosphere is stuffy, lots of unspoken words of frustration.

“I am the only income for my family so we basically lost all income during the shutdown. Unemployment was not adequate to pay the bills and now finances will be horrible in August. I have three small children, two of which will be going back to school and the extra money for school supplies will be difficult to find. My husband is also in college and his books will have to wait until September. This is all very upsetting.

“Needless to say, I am looking for other employment—I don’t want my family to have to endure this again in two years.”  – Pollution Control Agency employee

“Monday was my first day back. With only a few hours notice to show up on Thursday, I wasn’t able to get my family organized until today. There were many people like me who couldn’t show up for work on such short notice because they had to get child care lined up, or were out of town, or whatever. We are not getting unemployment compensation for Thursday and Friday.

“Normally when employees are laid off, the employer gives them at least a weeks notice that they are being called back. For us, we only had a few hours. Many people in that situation, like my daughter, who also works for the state, had zero vacation hours to cover those two days. One last slap.”  – Department of Human Services employee

“When we left in June, the work environment was toxic. From middle management down to the smallest of us we endured an atmosphere of fear, anger and ‘woe is me.’  

“The day of return was excellent. Everybody I spoke with was relaxed and the atmosphere was positive.  We were all happy to be back. Our Senior Manager took the time to walk around and speak to all of us. There are probably 100 employees in our section. She ensured we were all okay and assured us we will ‘ease’ back in to work. No pressure.

“At home, we are going to borrow to pay August rent. State employees will not feel the full effect of the shutdown until July 29th when we receive our zero paycheck.”  – Department of Human Services employee

“In some ways it is overwhelming because we have a nearly three-week backlog. The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency was basically shut down. No environmental permits issued, no monitoring reports reviewed, no one around to check if regulated parties were meeting the requirements of their permits. How much time will it take for state departments and agencies to return to pre-shutdown levels of function?”  – Pollution Control Agency employee   

“It is overwhelming to catch up. Our Commissioner is wonderful and tells us all the time how much he appreciates the work we do. However, nothing has been fixed with the budget and we may be right back in this same situation in two years. I will be keeping my eyes open for other employment opportunities. Working for the state doesn’t seem safe to me.

“The shutdown has completely stalled our work. I work on a 100 percent federally funded project that ends in March 2012. We have lost valuable time. The state entered into a federal contract and we haven’t delivered on it for 20 days. We now have a delayed media campaign, delayed conference planning and have missed other major milestones.

“At home, I’m in the hole. Plain and simple. We missed 15 work days and due to rules, were eligible for eight days of unemployment. Unemployment just doesn’t cut it. Even now that we are back to work we won’t see a paycheck until August 12. I probably won’t be back on track financially until October. I’ve got kids going off to college that need help. It’s a very hard time.” – Department of Health employee   
“We’re off to a slow start.  We’ve had expressions of thanks from higher ups in the organization for the effort we put into preparing for the shutdown, and for picking up the pieces and continuing on. This will take awhile to get past. We had our hands full before the shutdown.”
– Department of Human Services employee
“It was terrific to see our commissioner and deputy commissioner at the door, shaking hands, smiling, and welcoming us back. There were also thoughtful touches throughout the office letting us know we were missed. The backlog of work was less pleasant.

“It was humiliating to be treated like a chew toy to be pulled in multiple directions, thrown the floor, and picked up again only when those responsible feel like it. Our elected leaders should have gotten their work done on time.” – Department of Employment and Economic Development employee         

“Being back at work is both a relief and a problem. It was wonderful to get back into the usual routine and see all my coworkers again. However, it was extremely difficult to find out that we would not see a paycheck until August 12. The shutdown has shortened the construction season. The shortened season puts workers under further stress.”  – Department of Transportation employee
“It is hard to get back into the swing of things, especially when, as state workers, we are made to feel like second-class citizens. My husband and I both lost our income. The pain will come in August when we have no unemployment and no paycheck.”  – Pollution Control Agency employee                  

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Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by Kassie Church on 07/26/2011 - 10:22 am.

    August 12. That’s the date of my next paycheck. I have my budget planned out, but I doubt I’ll make it with the money in my bank account. And every penny of that check, and the next, is going into the bills I’m delaying paying. It is going to be tough well into October.

    I figure I lost about $1100 dollars during the shutdown. If they just would have taxed the richest 2%, those people would have lost something like $750 a year, which is a much smaller percentage of their income.

  2. Submitted by Sue Banovetz on 07/26/2011 - 12:18 pm.

    Don’t forget about those who lost their jobs because of the terrible economy and state budget cuts. There are folks who have been without jobs for one or two years — not 15 days. They’ve lost tens of thousands — if not hundreds of thousands — of dollars and many are without health insurance.

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