State employees feel the pain of shutdownby Rupa Shenoy, Minnesota Public Radio,
Madeleine Baran, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — State employees start their first day of a forced vacation without pay today. On Thursday, while Republican and DFL lawmakers went in and out of budget negotiations, the employees packed up offices and readied government departments for a shutdown.
Like most of her colleagues at the state Department of Commerce, Stacy Miller left work Thursday afternoon with a box filled with things that made up her life at work.
"My sweaters and some food out of the fridge, resume sort of material, and some industry magazines I'd like to read up on," Miller said.
Miller packed while swapping contact information with coworkers and promising to stay in touch. At that point, there was still hope for budget agreement. But Miller says most of her colleagues came to work with cardboard boxes, prepared for a shutdown. As the employees left, the collection of plants in their office slowly disappeared.
"What used to look like a forest in one corner with all the greenery and the plants is now barren," Miller said.
Miller oversees renewable energy and energy efficiency projects. As she walked from her office in downtown St. Paul to her home in Cathedral Hill, work was still on her mind.
"The state has the opportunity to apply for some federal funds for solar and there are some deadlines coming up in July and August that we just don't know if we'll be able to meet if there's still a shutdown," Miller said. "So it could end up costing the state that way too."
On the other side of Interstate 94, Dan Fitzgerald was finishing his work as an information technology project manager at the Department of Health. He said the department's leadership communicated constantly with employees, acknowledging the awkwardness of the situation and keeping them up to date. They even provided a checklist.
"Normal stuff — put the extended greeting on the voicemail. Put the out of the office auto-reply on email. You know, have you updated your timesheets, make sure you leave your electronic equipment here and secured," Fitzgerald listed them. "Simple stuff, but just a nice checklist."
Fitzgerald said most of his workmates spent the day methodically making their way through the checklist. As the hours ticked down, they listened to the radio and checked the Internet for updates on budget negotiations. They heard nothing through the day to encourage them. Fitzgerald says reactions around the office varied.
"Some people it really isn't fazing. Some people kind of really like the idea of a break right now. And then there's other people you can tell it really does bother them."
Fitzgerald is in a graduate program for health information technology; he figures with some time off he'll get all his summer semester work done. And he can deal with a few weeks without pay — he's been at the Minnesota Department of Health for four years and has saved up. He knows many of his colleagues haven't.
"They haven't had that time to build up a cushion. Having a week without pay, this is really going to impact their lives significantly. There's a lot of people who work for the state where that's true."
In the late evening, as the hours for a possible budget compromise dwindled, a few hundred people gathered on the steps of the state capitol. The demonstration was organized by the two major state employee unions, AFSCME AND MAPE. Most wore union t-shirts. Some waved candles or glowsticks. They chanted, "We want to work!"
Kevin Selbitschka, a six-year state employee, was there with his mother Annette. She's worked for the Department of Employment and Economic Development for 42 years.
"We feel let down by our own department. They're not feeding us a whole lot of information," Annette Selbitschka said.
Kevin Selbitschka works at the Minnesota Department of Revenue.
"Taxes are not being collected. I am home."
Selbitschka is single and he's still paying off student loans. He's been saving up in anticipation of a shutdown but he knows the next few weeks may be hard.
"You know it's going to kill you. You know your budget, you go from paycheck to paycheck," Selbitschka said. "This isn't a 'woe is me' speech but when you miss a paycheck or you miss two, you know you're going to feel it. That's just the way it is."
Two hours before midnight, GOP leaders offered a bill that would fund government temporarily. At a press conference, DFL Gov. Mark Dayton called the bill a "publicity stunt" that he couldn't accept. The impasse leaves 23,000 state employees out of work indefinitely.
- Morning Edition, 07/01/2011, 4:00 a.m.
Rupa Shenoy is a general assignment reporter for MPR News.