For many state workers, shutdown hits now

  • Article by: CURT BROWN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 29, 2011 - 12:13 PM

As the July 1 state budget deadline nears, government employees are closing wallets and adjusting plans.

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Minnesota Department of Public Safety Commercial Vehicle Inspector Jim Ullmer did a safety check on a commercial semi that he stopped along University Ave, near Central Ave in Minneapolis.

Photo: Bruce Bisping, Star Tribune

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Camille Miller hasn't signed her daughter up for Girl Scout camp this summer. The state health care analyst from Woodbury is not sure she'll have the $500 to pay for it.

Jim Ullmer has told his extended family to forget their annual July 4th get-together at Lake Itasca State Park. Ullmer, a state truck inspector from Crystal, is unsure if the campground will be open.

They are just two of more than 54,000 state workers bracing for an uncertain summer as the Capitol budget impasse threatens to shut down government services on July 1.

Both sides still have five weeks to work out a deal before the fiscal year ends, but the potential for a long, bitter standoff has Minnesotans jittery -- from teenagers sweating out driver's license tests to truckers worried about locked highway rest areas to parents awaiting documents for international adoptions.

"I think it's going to be horrible and long," Miller said. "You can't start saving up the week before, you need to start making changes now."

The last partial state shutdown in 2005 put 9,000 state employees out of work for 10 days because a prior accord had been reached on segments of the budget. In 2001, about 23,000 workers walked off their jobs in a 14-day dispute.

This go-around could be "much, much more extensive," said Management and Budget Commissioner Jim Schowalter, flashing back to those earlier shutdowns. "There is a depressing anxiety that pervades state government. People are wondering how they are going to be dealing with their own household issues, and it takes away from their ability to focus on the work at hand."

'Stretched to the max'

Merrideth Herried sees that edginess at her St. Paul office, where she helps maintain computers that county workers use to administer food stamps and other Children and Family Services programs.

"There's a lot of tension at work; the unknown isn't good for anyone," she said. "It's hard right now because the economy makes it almost impossible to save money."

Herried earns $24 an hour or $49,000 a year. Her kids are grown, but she cares for her 23-year-old disabled daughter in Woodbury.

"I think a lot of us are going to take a pretty hard hit because everybody's stretched to the max and living paycheck to paycheck," she said. "And the price of gas means a dollar doesn't go as far."

Like all anxious state workers, she's waiting to hear details of how a shutdown would work, whether banked-up vacation time can be used and which jobs will be deemed "essential" by a court-appointed mediator. For those declared "nonessential" in 2005, the sting still lingers.

"It's pretty much a kick in the teeth," said Michael Lindholt, who plows highways in the winter and maintains bridges in the summer for $21 an hour for the Transportation Department.

"You bust your head all winter trying to get the roads clear and then they feel they don't need us," said Lindholt, president of his local of the Association of Federal, State, County and Municipal Employees union, which represents 18,000 Minnesota state workers.

Their contract requires a three-week notice before layoffs, so thousands of pink slips could come by June 8. Lindholt has been fielding dozens of calls from union members.

"Everybody is in panic mode," he said. "We don't have answers, but I'm telling everyone to prepare for a long-term shutdown -- not a week or two. This one could be going on for a few months."

Widespread disruption

The potential shutdown wouldn't only affect state workers.

About 4,600 reservations at state campgrounds are expected for the first 10 days of July, which translates to nearly $1 million. Audrey Butts, Gooseberry State Park manager along Lake Superior, said she's starting to get calls from concerned campers. She tells them to keep their fingers crossed.

"All we can do is be optimistic on our end," she said.

Minnesota Trucking Association President John Hausladen said a shutdown could "literally put industry in peril." He worries about exhausted truckers encountering shuttered rest areas, and the inability to grant permits for heavy loads such as wind turbines.

"Without agencies that issue permits, credentials and licenses, whole production processes can be shut down," he said.

Mike Nelson has worked at the Secretary of State's business services division for 35 years. That's where everyone from new corporations to parents awaiting international adoptions go for paperwork. "A shutdown could have huge impact on the business community," Nelson said.

Mary Falk, who is setting up the bookstore at Anoka Technical College, wonders about students who've paid tuition for summer school.

JoAnn Holton is concerned about the developmentally disabled men at the group home she runs in Brooklyn Park. "I feel like state employees are pawns in a political game," she said. "But the bigger worry is not so much me, but what's going to happen to the clients?"

Then there's Tristan Peck from Grand Rapids. He turns 16 at the end of June and is planning to take his driver's license road test June 27.

His grandmother, Kathy Hron, runs the Right-Way Driving School in Grand Rapids and points out that if he hits a cone or messes up his parallel parking, Tristan would have to wait a week to retake the road rest. By then, the license test office could be shut down.

"There's already enough stress with just the test," Tristan said. "If I don't pass the first time, I might not be able to take it again for however many weeks or months long this could last."

Back in St. Paul, Mark Fischer works in the mail room for the Department of Natural Resources. His wife, a St. Paul school aide, just learned her position was cut. He recalls how the contract for the new 35W bridge included bonuses if the project was completed ahead of time and penalties if it dragged past the deadline.

"These legislators didn't get their job done. Why weren't they penalized?" he said. "It's pretty scary right now. I'm not sure what we're going to do."

Fischer plans to line up for unemployment if a shutdown puts him out of work on July 1.

"But who knows if that office will be open?" he said.

Staff writer Rachel E. Stassen-Berger contributed to this report. Curt Brown • 612-673-4767

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