Last-day blues afflict many state workers

Staff writerJuly 1, 2011 

— Like hundreds of other state employees, William Jones worked his last day Thursday, and he was not happy about it.

Jones, a 56-year old Wake Forest resident, enjoyed his job at the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences, where as a maintenance mechanic II he was a jack of all trades - unloading packages on the dock, sorting mail, arranging for repairs for the heating and cooling system, plumbing and electrical problems and installing phones.

Despite months of talks about budget cuts, it was still a shock when he and three co-workers were called into the human resources office a month ago and told they were going to be laid off June 30, the last day of the state's fiscal year.

"Whenever you are told you are going to lose your job it is stressful," Jones said. "You look forward to going to work every day and try to do the best job that you can. Then all of a sudden they are telling you, 'See you later, here are your walking papers.' You wonder how you are going to pay your bills."

With the beginning of the July 1 fiscal year, there were numerous layoffs across state government as the result of steps taken to close a $2.5 billion budget shortfall.

There are no complete figures on how many people were laid off Thursday. A preliminary estimate from the state budget office is that at least 527 state employees lost their jobs - a figure that does not include teachers, university employees, community college employees or those funded by federal receipts.

"Eventually there will be thousands," said Chris Mackey, the governor's press secretary. "It will come from the universities, and it will come from education agencies. There will be thousands of layoffs."

Republican legislative leaders, however, have said some downsizing of state government is necessary to balance the budget. And the Republicans have said Perdue's estimates - which she told a Democratic Party breakfast back in April could be as high as 30,000 when state and local jobs were included - were vastly overstated.

In the University of North Carolina system, the full effect of the job cuts will not be known for several weeks until the UNC Board of Governors takes action on its budget.

But from January through May, 227 UNC system employees covered under the State Personnel Act were laid off, as were 42 exempt UNC employees. Those figures do not include the sizable number of adjunct faculty and lecturers whose contracts were not renewed.

The reductions-in-force affected people doing all sorts of jobs. At Cultural Resources, exhibit designers, curators, archaeologists and educators were among those laid off.

In a memo to departmental employees, DENR Secretary Dee Freeman attributed the cuts to the Republican legislature, which overrode the veto of the budget by Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue. He noted that a combination of budget cuts, divisional transfers and fund shifting had reduced the number of DENR employees by 1,050.

"For those of you who leave DENR as part of the RIF process, I sincerely thank you for your dedication and service to the department, and wish you all the best in your future endeavors," Freeman wrote. "And for those of you who remain, I challenge you once again to do more with less."

One of the DENR employees laid off was Jones. He had been in his job since 2007 and was drawing an annual salary of $28,334.

He has a wife, who was laid off from her private sector job two years ago and still does not have a job, and a teenage daughter. There is pain in his voice, as he tries to figure out why his job was eliminated and not others.

'It's frustrating'

Jones sees a basic inconsistency in laying off people, while the department has been advertising for people to staff the Nature Research Center under construction next door to the natural sciences museum.

"It's frustrating that on the same day you are laid off, and you look on the Office of State Personnel website and you see five jobs in the same building you are working in and the salaries are ranging from $84,000 to $124,000 a year, and I'm making less than $30,000 a year and I'm getting sent home," Jones said. "Some of these jobs are like science and communications director, space exploration laboratory director."

On the same day he was given his pink slip, Jones said, the museum introduced a new curator of birds.

"Why are they still hiring people when others are getting laid off?" Jones said. "It doesn't make any sense.''

Now Jones is heading into a job market with a four-month severance package.

"I will have to give 100 percent into finding something," Jones said.

Although the layoffs are all the products of the Great Recession, not all the layoffs can be laid at the feet of the legislature.

Take Martha Lowrance, who until Thursday worked as a child advocate in the youth advocacy section of the Department of Administration.

Lowrance, 61, made $41,429 per year advocating for children's issues before various state government agencies.

Lowrance got a notice that all three people in her section were on the chopping block in November when Perdue ordered her Cabinet secretaries to find budget cuts of 15 percent.

Devalued workers?

The child advocacy section stayed in the budget in the state House, but was taken out late in the process in the Senate at the urging of the Department of Administration, Lowrance said.

"The Department didn't value our work as much as we thought they should," Lowrance said. "Sometimes they didn't see it as a core part of what the Department of Administration does."

Lowrance and her fellow counselors have in recent days stopped taking requests for help , as they wound down their cases. Lowrance, a lawyer, plans to retire from the state after 19 years. But she hopes to find another job that can provide similar satisfaction in helping people.

When she closed up her office Thursday, Lowrance said she was leaving something of value behind.

."The thing I hate," Lowrance said, "is the services will not be available to the families and the children."

Staff writer Lynn Bonner contributed to this story.

rob.christensen@ newsobserver.com or 919-829-4532

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