State Workers

380 DSHS jobs, Medicaid drug help get ax

The Department of Social and Health Services State ordered spending cuts of 6.3 percent Wednesday, including elimination of 380 jobs and additional unpaid furloughs for employees by June 30.

And the arm of state government that oversees the Medicaid health program for low-income people separately announced $112.8 million in cuts that would eliminate prescription drug help next March for Medicaid recipients and reduce spending on children’s health insurance subsidies.

The cuts align with Gov. Chris Gregoire’s executive order to cut most state agencies’ spending across-the-board by 6.3 percent. Announcements by other agencies are due by Friday, the date the governor’s order takes effect. The Department of Corrections plans an announcement today in Seattle.

In the case of DSHS, spending cuts of $168 million will require nine one-day “temporary layoffs,” or unpaid furloughs, for workers not already subject to temporary layoff days ordered by the Legislature in April. The DSHS cuts require two more furlough days – in November and May – for workers already subject to lawmakers’ order for 10 furlough days.

The DSHS cuts begin Friday, and layoff notices have gone out to an unspecified number of workers, DSHS spokesman Thomas Shapley said.

The furloughs would likely hit pretty hard in a community like Olympia, which is the seat of government. Shapley said the furloughs should save $11.2 million and save 160 jobs that otherwise would have had to be cut.

“Obviously there is going to be some attrition. Obviously there is going to be some layoffs. Obviously there is going to be some jobs left open,” Shapley said. His agency said the cuts are on top of 2,000 positions eliminated since June 2008.

Spokesmen for the Washington Federation of State Employees took the news philosophically and said it appeared the agency is trying to spare services and jobs.

“We understand the economic realities of the state right now. What we’re trying to do is mitigate the impacts in the best way possible,” federation executive director Greg Devereux said during a break in contract talks.

The union, which represents about 40,000 state employees, has previously criticized furloughs – and it has called for closing tax loopholes rather than hurting workers. But Devereux said things appear to have changed.

“They (DSHS) indicated they didn’t think the way furloughs were done last year was that fair, and they want to engage in a more flexible approach on these cuts. We intend to talk to them as soon as possible – maybe next week – to figure out how to do these in a sane manner,” Devereux said. “They honestly seem to be trying to preserve services and limit the layoffs, and we respect that.”

Devereux said DSHS also appears to be at “barebones” staffing and if it gets rid of staff now it means they “are going to get rid of programs.”

WFSE president Carol Dotlich said in a hotline e-mail to members that union officials were told the agency is closing one ward at Western State Hospital, one cottage at a residential center for the disabled and downsizing Maple Lane School near Grand Mound. “Long-term care services, TANF, and food assistance for noncitizens and naturalization services will be hit hard.

Mental Health RSNs will also be hard hit. The impacts of these changes will reverberate throughout the human services network. This is difficult news to hear and our members will hear a lot of speculation about it,” Dotlich wrote.

More announcements by other agencies are expected this week, potentially today in the office that oversees Medicaid. Gregoire has warned that cuts could hit podiatry and hospice care for the elderly.

DSHS is the state’s largest agency, and its share of the cuts is $280 million, including $168 million announced by DSHS Secretary Susan Dreyfus.

Republican lawmakers including Rep. Gary Alexander of Thurston County have criticized the across-the-board approach, which can hit all programs the same across state government.

But majority Democrats – who struggled to approve spending cuts and tax increases in a special session in April – have said this is the quickest way to address the state’s $520 million shortfall, which grew in the most recent revenue forecast.

Line workers have posted comments to the agency’s internal “blog” that mostly ask questions, according to Shapley. He said that he’s heard in conversations with fellow staffers they think the furloughs may be fairer than putting furloughs on only 40 percent of staffers.

“Now everyone virtually is sharing in that burden. I’ve heard personally from staff members that say at least that’s fair,” he said. Shapley added that the two furlough days added for workers already affected will be in November and May, while the employees newly facing furloughs will likely take “rolling furloughs” or “holiday” scheduling.

As a result, some of those workers – including Child Protective Services employees who investigate complaints of child abuse – might take the first Monday off in a month, while others took the second Monday and others took the other days, Shapley said.

He said Dreyfus also has told labor she wants to talk to them about her concern that lower-paid workers are hit harder. The Legislature’s furloughs included a provision that let workers earning less than $30,000 a year use vacation leave for furlough days and avoid losing pay.

“It’s my understanding that it would take negotiation with the union to work it out,” Shapley said. “She is looking for ways to do a similar thing if she can.’’

Brad Shannon: 360-753-1688