October 9, 2013

Uncertainty looms as Maine workers brace for long-term effects of shutdown

With over 2,700 state workers funded by federal dollars and no end to stalemate in sight, the state weighs more furloughs.

By Steve Mistler smistler@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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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

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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:


Twitter: @stevemistler

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