Friday, March 7, 2014
Robin Upton-Sukeforth knew she could be laid off.
The parking lot in front of the Disability Determination Services office in Winthrop sits empty Tuesday after 52 federally funded workers were temporarily laid off and the office was closed.
Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal
As one of 2,739 state workers in Maine whose positions are fully or partially funded with federal dollars, the 57-year-old claims adjudicator in the Disability Determination Office in Winthrop was told last week that the shutdown of the federal government could lead to a temporary furlough.
Upton-Sukeforth and 51 of her co-workers got 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,” she said.
Now, nearly 22 percent of state government’s 13,000 workers – those who rely on federal funds for their salaries – are bracing for more bad news as the shutdown drags on.
As Democrats and Republicans in Washington, D.C., keep trading blame, the effects of the shutdown are pushing into state governments, where operations are intertwined with federal money. From Maine to California, state officials are trying to assess how long their federally funded employees can keep working.
More than 1,000 state workers in Arkansas were told to go home last week, when the shutdown began. Governors in New Hampshire, Vermont and California have begun preparing similar directives.
On Monday, the LePage administration announced 52 temporary layoffs at the Disability Determination Office in Winthrop, in addition to furloughs of four employees in the Department of Health and Human Services and three in the Maine Department of Labor. Last week, 406 technicians in the Maine Army and Air National Guard were furloughed, although most were later recalled.
With the federal shutdown moving toward its second full week, the LePage administration has stepped up its assessment of the effects of a long-term stalemate. That task hasn’t been easy.
There are federally funded employees, and there are 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 this month if Congress can end the shutdown.
“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 in the Department of Labor. “It’s a rolling kind of schedule.”
The stakes are especially high in her department, which is 97 percent federally funded, including the salaries of most of the 500 employees.
The LePage administration said there are nearly 2,000 federally funded employees in the DHHS, the oversight agency for the Disability Determination Office.
The situation is confusing even the workers. Rabinowitz said that when news broke late Monday that the Winthrop office was closing temporarily, the DHHS got calls from other state employees who wondered if they had been furloughed.
“They thought they couldn’t go into work,” Rabinowitz said.
In the Department of Labor, the potential for furloughs and its uncertain duration weighs heavily on 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 for Upton-Sukeforth. She was too busy last week to think about getting laid off. Claims in the disability office are voluminous, she said, and there’s little time to think about anything but adjudicating claims.
“If you don’t have cases done, you have people calling, asking about the status of their case,” she said.
And the cases are piling up with the office closed. “The work doesn’t stop just because we’re not there,” Upton-Sukeforth said.
The shutdown also weighs heavily on state officials, with uncertain commitments from the federal government. Sawin Millett, the governor’s finance chief, said Tuesday that state agencies are trying to determine if they can and should pay for some employees and operations with state money, and for how long.
The calculation depends on what Millett called “unequivocal assurances” that the federal government will reimburse the state. Such assurances have not been easy to get, he said.
Last week, David Agnew, head of the White House Office of Intergovernmental Affairs, held a conference call with state budget officers. According to a report in Governing magazine, Agnew provided some assurances that states would be reimbursed, but he made few promises.
The situation is less clear if the shutdown collides with a looming debate over the federal debt ceiling. If Congress doesn’t raise the debt ceiling to allow previously approved spending, the country could default and states will have to decide how to maintain programs and employees that rely on federal money.
“The longer you continue to employ people in those high (federal) match categories without some assurance of reimbursement, the more you’re drawing on general fund monies that won’t be there if this continued shutdown extends beyond October,” Millett said.
The LePage administration is conducting an evaluation to determine which agencies and employees are affected most. Officials could not provide an agency-by-agency breakdown on Tuesday.
Adrienne Bennett, the governor’s spokeswoman, said Monday that the administration hoped to have a global assessment out this week.
Millett said the administration already knew which departments were most vulnerable: the DHHS, the Labor Department and the Department of Defense, Veterans and Emergency Management.
Employees in those departments are on edge, said Maryanne Turowski, the legislative liaison for the Maine State Employees Association. “It’s creating angst among everyone.”
LePage met with representatives of the state employees union last week. While the governor and the union have clashed frequently, Turowski said, LePage seemed “genuinely concerned about a crisis that was not of his making.”
The union is worried that some furlough orders could be ordered unnecessarily. She noted that New Hampshire and Vermont have not furloughed employees in their disability claims centers, as Maine did Monday.
Millett said Tuesday that the decision was made when the state couldn’t get assurances from the federal government that operations in Winthrop would be reimbursed when the shutdown ends.
Other states have begun preparing federally funded employees for a temporary work stoppage. On Monday, officials in Minnesota told more than 100 federally funded employees in its Department of Health, including 71 nurses, that they could be laid off. The state has 3,000 federally funded positions.
In Vermont, labor chief Annie Noonan reported 400 new claims for unemployment insurance. Maine hasn’t experienced a similar spike yet, but if it does it will pose a tricky situation for her department.
While the federal government continues to grant unemployment claims during a shutdown, Rabinowitz said, the state staff handling those claims is almost entirely federally funded. She said there is enough funding to administer the unemployment insurance program for at least four more weeks.
While the state makes its preparations, federally funded state employees are making their own.
Upton-Sukeforth said she has had time to consider the impact of her layoff. She is assessing which bills need to be paid, and which ones can be put off.
“I’m in survivor mode,” she said.
Her husband, Lee Sukeforth, works for the Maine Department of Transportation. They don’t think Lee’s salary is tied to federal funding, but they don’t know for sure.
What they know is that a few people in Washington are having a big impact on their lives.
“This small group of people is affecting everybody,” she said. “It’s so black and white to them, but the rest of us are in a gray area.”
Steve Mistler can be contacted at 791-6345 or at: