The number of employees on the state government payroll fell again last month, and for many Washington state agency workers, job-loss fears haven't subsided.
A process called “bumping” is under way, with hundreds of workers at major agencies such as the Department of Social and Health Services using seniority rights to “bump” into jobs held by newer employees.
That process is among the factors that drew two dozen state employees to a jobs-transition workshop Tuesday in Lacey that was sponsored by the state Department of Personnel.
Among them were Becky Baxter and Charity Belanger, Department of Corrections employees in the community corrections division in Vancouver. Neither has received a layoff notice, but neither has much seniority, and both expect workers in support services to lose jobs.
Baxter said “it’s the unknown” that is causing worry.
“We’re in the same boat. We don’t know what is going to happen,” Belanger said. “That’s why we’re here … Do we have options? Will we be able to be hired by another agency with the state? We don’t know.’’
David Hamilton said he’s a few years from retirement and has heard that the Basic Health Plan, for which he has done IT support for 14 years, might be cut further or eliminated in next year’s legislative session. State budget writers say the program is on the table for possible cuts to plug next year’s shortfall, estimated at more than $1 billion, but a rescue of the program through federal health care reform is still a long shot.
“It’s a little bleak. We already eliminated 30 positions, and that meant 10 people had to be let go,’’ Hamilton said.
Hamilton said that in past downturns, he was familiar with the rules for reductions in force, or RIFs, but some have changed because of the sweeping personnel reform act of 2002.
“Now I don’t have a clue,” he said. “I’m one of 50 or 60 people who would have to go’’ if the program is eliminated.
Hamilton said he also attended because his sister lost her private-sector job after 26 years, and he wants to pick up any tips he can to help her too.
Workshop leader Teresa Dillon of the Department of Personnel provided each participant with a packet of information, and she had a team of people from other state agencies to help share details workers need.
Dillon said she has coordinated about two dozen workshops for Personnel since May. Dillon added that she has noticed that employees also are finding fewer options outside state government compared with the recessions of 2002-03 or early 1990s.
But even with jobless rates rising to 9.3 percent statewide in September, Dillon has seen a decline in the number of workers showing up for help, “which hopefully is a good sign,’’ she said.
Dillon had a representative from the Health Care Authority attend to talk about health benefits people can purchase for nine months after leaving state service; someone from WorkSource to talk about free workshops and free work-search assistance that can include mock job interviews; someone from Employment Security to talk about unemployment benefits that range from $225 to $630 per week, including the state Legislature’s short-term stimulus bonus of $45 per week; and Retirement Systems to talk about pensions.
Dillon usually has someone from the state employee assistance program too.
“Unfortunately, it is tough times right now,’’ Dillon told the group. “We recognize that losing a job can be like losing a family member. We want to help you get through this time of stress as best you can.’’
Dillon offered tips for getting on three state layoff lists that can let workers be considered for rehiring when the economy recovers, or to be considered for jobs in other agencies.
Many workers declined to talk about their situations to a reporter.
Job losses began last year in some state agencies but picked up steam in the spring, when lawmakers adopted their budget for 2009-11. They cut more than $4 billion in spending and capped hiring to make it add up. The cuts accompanied other belt-tightening ordered by Gov. Chris Gregoire and the Legislature to reduce outlays on equipment, travel and training.
Some job cuts have been accomplished by attrition, many by workers retiring. Some eliminated positions were vacant. But actual cuts also are taking place, and these have hit workers who in other recessions might have been spared.
Brian Hallett, a social worker with the Children’s Administration, said he and two co-workers got notice late Friday afternoon at their Centralia office that their positions are being eliminated. Hallett said he has seniority dating to 1981 but works half time, which limits his options to bump into another position. He and the co-workers went to the workshop to see what options they might have.
The state Department of Social and Health Services is the largest agency and has had the largest cuts. It eliminated 414 people from its payroll since June 30 and 1,235 since last month. Layoff notices to an additional 559 workers still are being worked through, DSHS spokesman Thomas Shapley said by telephone Tuesday.
The Washington Federation of State Employees is watching the situation closely and challenging some of the layoffs through rules that govern its contract with the state.
“There are real folks losing their jobs because of layoffs. There are others that we are still contesting exactly who they want to lay off and why they want to lay those folks off,” federation spokesman Tim Welch said. “An awful lot are leaving because of retirement and natural attrition, and those positions are not being filled.’’
Some workers laid off at the Rainier School for the disabled in Buckley have landed jobs at Western State Hospital in Steilacoom, Welch said. But as positions are lost in work units, the workers left behind feel the strain – if not danger – in places such as Maple Lane School, the juvenile prison near Grand Mound, Welch said.
“That is almost as bad. You have huge workload increases and all the problems that come with that,’’ he said. “There are grave security problems and workload problems. It’s going to take a tragedy before the pendulum swings the other way.’’
Brad Shannon: 360-753-1688