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 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].”