October 8, 2013

State workers prepare for worst as politicians exchange blame in Washington

LePage administration steps up assessment of effects from long-term stalemate

By Steve Mistler smistler@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Robin Upton-Sukeforth knew she could be laid off.

click image to enlarge

The parking lot in front of the closed Department of Health and Human Services Disability Determination Services office in Winthrop was empty on Tuesday.

Staff photo by Joe Phelan

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As one of 2,739 state workers whose positions are fully or partially funded with federal dollars, the 57-year-old claims adjudicator at the Disability Determination Services office in Winthrop was told last week that the shutdown of federal government could lead to a temporary furlough.

Upton-Sukeforth and 51 of her co-workers received the news Monday evening. Don’t come in Tuesday, her supervisor said. Or Wednesday. Or Thursday.

“They said to come back Friday, but there were no guarantees,” Upton-Sukeforth said.

Now nearly 22 percent of the state’s 13,000 workers — the ones who rely on federal funds for their salaries — are bracing for more bad news as the partial federal shutdown drags on.

As Democrats and Republicans in Washington, D.C., continue exchanging blame, the effects of the partial shutdown of federal government are pushing into state governments where operations are intertwined with federal money. From Maine to California, state officials are trying to assess how long federally funded employees can continue to do their jobs in state agencies.

More than 1,000 state workers in Arkansas were told to go home last week. Governors in New Hampshire, Vermont and California have begun preparing similar directives.

On Monday, the LePage administration announced 52 temporary layoffs at the Winthrop disability center in addition to four furloughed employees at the Department of Health and Human Services and three others at the Maine Department of Labor. Last week, 406 technicians in the Maine Army and Air National Guard were furloughed, although most were later recalled.

However, with the federal shutdown moving into its second full week, the LePage administration has stepped up its assessment of effects from a long-term stalemate. It hasn’t been easy.

Not only are there federally funded employees, there are also multiple revenue streams and grants that flow from Washington. Each has a different funding level, a different time line. Some dollars are drying up now. Others may fund salaries and operations until the end of the month if congressional lawmakers can reach an accord on the shutdown and the debt ceiling debate.

“We have to look at which streams affect which people and which positions ... and how much time we have, given the available funds,” said Julie Rabinowitz, spokeswoman at the Maine Department of Labor. “It’s a rolling kind of schedule.”

The stakes are especially high at Maine labor department. The agency is 97 percent federally funded, and federal dollars pay the salaries of most of its 500 employees. According to the LePage administration, there are nearly 2,000 federally funded employees at the Department of Health and Human Services, the oversight agency for the Disability Determination Services office.

It is even confusing the individual workers. Rabinowitz said that when news broke late Monday that the Winthrop office was temporarily closing, DHHS received a number of calls from other state employees wondering whether they had been furloughed, too.

“They thought they couldn’t go into work,” Rabinowitz said.

At the Labor office, the potential of a furlough and its uncertain duration weighs heavily on agency employees, Rabinowitz said.

“It’s one thing if you know you just need to stretch your dollar one week or two weeks, but if you have to stretch your dollar to cover four or five weeks, that’s a different situation,” she said.

That’s the situation Upton-Sukeforth now faces. She was too busy to think about getting laid off last week. Claims at the disability office are voluminous, she said, and there’s little time think about anything but adjudicating the claims and getting them out the door.

“If you don’t have cases done, you have people calling, asking about the status of their case,” she said.

(Continued on page 2)

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