Minnesota’s state workers begin task of re-starting government ‘machinery’

After three long weeks, Minnesota’s state government will begin lumbering to its feet today.

Beginning at 6 a.m., more than 22,000 state employees were authorized to return to the shuttered buildings that they left reluctantly on June 30.

State parks are tentatively expected to open Friday, and horses will race again at Canterbury Park as early as tonight.

The Minnesota Department of Transportation, meanwhile, will begin reconnecting with contractors, and suspended road projects will slowly start to pick up. Those are just a few of the countless state services expected to resume in the next few days.

The welcome news for state workers and their families follows Wednesday’s signing by Gov. Mark Dayton of budget laws that effectively ended the state’s 20-day government shutdown.

State employees began receiving automated calls and emails Wednesday alerting them to come back. But, because they have up to three days to return to their posts, agencies are uncertain about how quickly services will be fully staffed.

Swamped with catch-up work
When they are back, employees will find a backlog of calls and requests that went unanswered during the shutdown.

“Returning state workers will be swamped with backlogs that built up during the shutdown,” AFSCME Council 5 Executive Director Eliot Seide said in a statement. “You can’t just flip a switch to restart all state services — it will probably take a few days and relief won’t be immediate for residents whose lives have been seriously disrupted by the shutdown.”

MnDOT, which lost 95 percent of its workforce in the shutdown, is perhaps one of the most overwhelmed. Minnesota Management and Budget Commissioner Jim Schowalter has said that road construction could take weeks to resume.

“We don’t know exactly when everything will get started, but it will take some time,” said MnDOT Spokesman Kevin Gutknecht. “We will be working to get things going as quickly as possible.”

Of MnDOT’s 5,000 employees, 4,765 were temporarily laid off. Workers will need to reconnect with managers and reach out to contractors in the first few days of work to even get a sense of how things are supposed to move along.

What are the worst problems going to be?

“We don’t even know” until the employees are back, Gutknecht said.

While some road construction projects are expected to move faster than others, it could take weeks for certain contractors to begin working again because they may have moved equipment off construction sites, among other reasons, he said.
Other state entities — such as the Minnesota Historical Society’s 26 sites and museums and the IRRRB’s Iron Range golf courses — are expected to be operating in the next couple of days. The Historical Society sites will be open Saturday

Parks will need ‘prep work’
For the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, the situation is likely to be easier but remains equally unclear.

State parks are expected to open Friday, and overnight camping could begin Saturday, but that timeline is dependent on DNR workers inspecting the facilities for weather damage, garbage cleanup and vandalism.

At least two state parks — Afton and St. Croix — were vandalized during the shutdown, DNR spokesman Chris Niskanen said.

The parks that require the most preparations, according to Niskanen, are Afton, Lake Bronson, Camden, Upper Sioux Agency, Flandreau, Blue Mounds, Wild River and St. Croix.

“We just don’t flip a switch,” he said. “These are complex facilities.”

At the Minnesota departments of Health, Human Services and Education, dealing with piles of paperwork, service calls and licensures could be nearly crippling for employees in the first days back.

For Alice Smith, a newly rehired clerical worker at the state Education Department, Minnesota’s 20-day government shutdown could have spawned a large backlog.

Smith processes General Education Development certificates and also checks for companies whether job applicants and those enlisting in the military have obtained the certification. The clerical worker said before the shutdown she usually received 20 requests a day and has spent entire mornings printing out faxed requests.

In the past, Smith said, “I didn’t even really want to take two days off [because] I paid the price.” In her two-person office, a backup worker would usually come to take some of the requests if Smith took a vacation. But during the shutdown, all staffers were laid off.

“It’s a pretty busy operation, and it’s just me and my boss, who handles other aspects of the testing, so it’s going to be pretty busy,” Smith said.

On June 30, her last day of work, Smith arrived early to make sure she could process as many requests as possible, “so at least a few people could get on with their lives.” She left the building sadly, understanding the strain the office’s shutdown would place on jobseekers and soon-to-be soldiers.

Smith said she doesn’t know if overtime will be authorized to process the stack of requests, although she’s sure to be working through lunchtime — as usual.

“I love providing services for people,” Smith said. “I’m just so glad to be back at work. Sitting around … for three weeks, it’s not something I like to do.”

More than 1,000 employees at Canterbury Park echoed the same feelings last week. Hundreds rallied at the horse track for the shutdown to end so they could reclaim their jobs. With the shutdown over and 12 days of racing lost, the track and gambling are resuming today.

Much like the financial toll for the state, it’s unclear how much money the track lost during the shutdown. But, it did fare better than anticipated. Only 25 of 1,300 horses left Minnesota for other states, likely because it costs between $600 and $800 to move each animal, Canterbury spokesman Jeff Maday said. “Had it gone another week,” he said, “who knows what would have happened?”  

The horse track learned it could reopen Thursday from the Minnesota Racing Commission, which regulates the industry. MRC stewards and veterinarians, who can now return to work, inspect the horses and watch every race to ensure high standards are kept.

Ninety horses will race Thursday night, Maday said, and he’s optimistic Canterbury can bring loyal fans back to the track after the weeks-long hiatus.

“I think we’ll have a good crowd,” Maday said. “I think we have a loyal fan base. I’m expecting a huge night.”

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