Tension builds as potential state government shutdown approaches

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The timing of a potential state government shutdown couldn’t be worse for Mark Fischer, an employee in the DNR’s Division of Fish and Wildlife. Fischer’s wife, who works for the St. Paul Public Schools, recently learned her position would not be renewed for the 2011-12 school year. But as president of his union, Local 1465 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Fischer knows the timing of a government shutdown is never good for anyone.

“I’m getting all kinds of questions from different members asking what’s going to happen,” Fischer said. “Everybody is getting real nervous.”

State workers like Fischer are caught in the crossfire of budget negotiations between DFL Gov. Mark Dayton and Republican leaders of the Legislature. The two sides differ over how to address a projected $5 billion shortfall for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

If the two sides fail to reach an agreement by June 30, the state will cease all operations other than those deemed “essential” by a judge, and most of the state’s 36,000 employees will find themselves unemployed.

Even if avoided, the potential shutdown already has altered the lives of state workers, who are tightening their belts and padding their savings in anticipation of a potential work stoppage.

“People thinking about buying a house, buying a car or taking a vacation, they’ve canceled it because they just don’t know what’s going to happen,” said Michael Lindholt, a state highway maintenance worker and president of AFSCME Local 221.

“We’re in this holding pattern. We’re at the mercy of the Legislature.”

Preparing for a shutdown

AFSCME Council 5 and the Minnesota Association of Professional Employees – the two major unions that, together, represent about 31,000 state employees – have been advising their members for months on how best to prepare for a government shutdown.

Still, planning to be unemployed for an undetermined length of time is easier said than done.

“Our members make, on average, $38,000 a year,” said Eliot Seide, Council 5’s executive director. “Many of them live paycheck to paycheck, and a shutdown is going to be an extreme hardship for them.”

Angie Piche, a MAPE member and Department of Revenue employee, began an emergency savings fund last November, and she is hopeful it will allow her to ride out any temporary unemployment.

“I’ve been able to put a lot aside, but I’ve had to defer some items – home improvement things,” she said. “I’m not spending money on entertainment and extra things most people do.”

Ahmad Lewis, a 28-year-old MAPE member who audits income tax forms for the Department of Revenue, has taken a more drastic approach. He’s begun looking for a different job altogether.

“I love what I do, but what am I going t do about money?” Lewis asked. “I don’t have a huge reserve built up for myself, and this could potentially go for such a long time. Not being able to pay the rent and my other bills – it’s not a good situation.”

A ripple effect

State workers aren’t the only ones affected by the potential government shutdown, however. When 36,000 Minnesotans cut back on their spending, it has a ripple effect already being felt throughout the state’s economy.

“We’re not buying anything. We’re locking it down. We don’t make any big purchases,” Lindholt said. “Laying me off is not going to boost the economy, not going to make me spend money in this state.”

Seide agreed, pinning the blame on Republican lawmakers for refusing to consider revenue increases needed to spare thousands of state workers from layoffs.

“The Republican Legislature is going to, by their refusal to compromise, thwart the economic recovery in this state,” Seide said. “The Republican Legislature will cause the largest layoff in state history.

“If this was a private-sector firm that was going to lay off 36,000 workers, these same Republican legislators would be on their knees, begging them to put people back to work.”

Yet for some reason, the jobs public employees do are somehow less important to many in the Legislature.

That implied “second-class” status is not lost on rank-and-file state workers, who expressed frustration with elected leaders and anger over being targeted by politicians looking to score cheap political points.

“We do work for the state, we do work for the public, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t real people,” Piche said. “We have lives, bills, families, expenses. This is incredibly unsettling for us.”

And that’s not good for workplace morale.

“The workplace environment has been tense,” Lewis said. “It’s very demotivating, but my own personal ethics won’t let me throw my work ethic under the table. I just do the best I can do.”

Minnesotans can only hope lawmakers will follow Lewis’ example – and get to work.

“We’re here. We want to work. We do our jobs and get paid for it,” Lindholt said. “These politicians don’t do their jobs and they’re still getting paid for it.”

Michael Moore edits The Union Advocate, the official publication of the St. Paul Regional Labor Federation.

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