The specter of a shutdown looms over government workersby Martin Moylan, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — Gov. Mark Dayton met Wednesday with his cabinet officers and told them to identify essential services that should continue in the event of a government shutdown.
Dayton has said his budget standoff with the GOP-controlled Legislature means there's a strong likelihood state services will stop when current funding runs out July 1. If that occurs, the state would furlough most of its more than 30,000 workers.
That has state employees worried about going without a paycheck.
Among them is John Sherman, a policy analyst for the state Department of Employment and Economic Development.
Sherman and his wife, Phyllis, of St. Paul, have been talking a lot lately about how they would get by if state government shuts down. They're thinking of everything they could do to cut expenses and bring in more money.
Sherman believes the odds for a government shutdown are 50 percent, and he expects it would last a month or so.
To prepare, the Shermans have been watching for sales and stocking up on food, especially peanut butter, jelly and tuna fish. There's little space left in their refrigerator or basement freezer, but they are not done hoarding yet.
"Probably in the next few weeks you would see a little bit more being stuffed in," he said. "We could probably live, I'm guessing, three to five weeks right now on the staples we have in the house."
Sherman's wife is out of work right now, making belt-tightening even more important. They're making sure their prescriptions are filled and have stopped eating out. Cable TV and Sherman's gym membership are on the chopping block, ready to go if need be. But Sherman is worried about an important benefit.
"I'm 62," he said. "My wife is 60. Health insurance is an issue."
The two major unions representing state employees, AFSCME and MAPE, say members would qualify for six months of continued health insurance coverage. Employees would have to pick up the necessary premiums. But how much that costs will depend on how long they have been state employees. Some would have to pay the entire premium right away. Others would continue paying the employee portion of the health care insurance premium.
Other questions on the minds of employees include which state agencies may escape a shutdown and whether employees can count on unemployment benefits. It's also unclear how much Minnesota's colleges and universities would be affected, since they receive only a portion of their funding from the state.
Many married state employees may be able to obtain health insurance through spouses' employers. That's what Johanna Anderson, a senior program administrator for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, is doing.
"It's the primary precaution we're taking," said Anderson, of St. Paul. "[We're] just concerned that after that first month, we'd have to start paying for COBRA and if there's a way to avoid that, then we'll do so."
COBRA allows a laid-off person to stay in a former employer's health plan, so long as they pay the full freight.
Answers to employee questions should be coming soon, said John Pollard, a spokesman for the Minnesota Department of Management and Budget.
"We are asking the agencies to identify what we call their priority one or two critical services, those services that they think at the agency level have to continue forward, namely in response to life and health safety matters," Pollard said.
In 2005, during a partial state government shutdown, a special court master recommended some 12,000 state employees be deemed essential and continue working. The master found most employees in public safety, transportation, and veterans' and human services were involved in critical operations.
The State Patrol and prisons likely would largely or completely escape a shutdown this time around. It's also possible that the state Department of Employment and Economic Development would be deemed essential, allowing laid-off employees to collect unemployment benefits.
Dayton has said most state employees would be affected by a government shutdown. Layoff notices could start going out next week.
- All Things Considered, 05/25/2011, 4:53 p.m.