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Thousands of state employees feel brunt of shutdown
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Ellen Paquin, one of 9,000 state employees laid off because of the government shutdown, says there's plenty of blame to go around -- including Gov. Pawlenty and legislative leaders from both parties. (MPR Photo/Tom Scheck)
The biggest single impact of the partial government shutdown is the 9,000 state workers who didn't go to work Friday morning. Most of Minnesota's state employees did work Friday, because the Legislature has already funded their agencies or a judge has ruled that their job is critical. State employees and their union representatives are blaming every state lawmaker and Gov. Pawlenty for failing to get every state worker back on the job.

St. Paul, Minn. — Ellen Paquin is one of the unlucky 9,000 or so state employees who are out of work as of Friday. Paquin works in the child support division in the Minnesota Department of Human Services. She says she's confused, angry and frustrated that Gov. Pawlenty and state lawmakers couldn't agree on a budget, or pass a law so state government would continue operating.

"We're the casualties. The citizens of Minnesota and the workers, 9,000 of us, and the people that we provide services for," says Paquin.

Paquin says she filed for unemployment and intends to burn up a week's vacation so she'll get at least some pay. But her vacation runs out on July 7, and she's worried about her bills. To make matters worse, Paquin bought a home in late May and is worried about her mortgage.

"I was up until 1 o'clock last night and up again at 6 this morning, keeping myself busy so I don't go stir crazy -- worried about if they couldn't make a decision last night, are they going to today, tomorrow? The next day? When?" said Paquin.

Paquin and other state employees say there's plenty of blame to go around. Some say Gov. Pawlenty's "No new taxes" pledge is putting the state in financial difficulties.

Others blame Senate Democrats for adjourning with two and a half hours left before Thursday night's budget deadline. Eliot Seide, executive director of the state's largest public employee union, said Thursday night that his members were caught in a political game of chicken.

"It is an outrageous failure," said Seide. "It is a bipartisan, nonpartisan, fully partisan failure that that didn't get done tonight."

Seide and other union members met with Gov. Pawlenty and lawmakers in both parties throughout the day Friday, to see if they could agree on some sort of continuing budget resolution.

The union has also requested a Tuesday hearing before a court-appointed special master to request that all state employees be considered "essential." A judge has ordered that core government functions relating to the life, health and property of Minnesotans must continue.

The shutdown hit employees of the transportation department the hardest, said Employee Relations Commissioner Cal Ludeman, who's coordinating the shutdown. Almost 4,000 of the idled employees work for that agency.

Jim Monroe, executive director of the Minnesota Association of Professional Employees, says lawmakers and the governor need a greater sense of urgency.

Had this been any large employer in the state of Minnesota, we would have seen the parties working together 24 hours straight to get a resolution.
- Jim Monroe, Minnesota Association of Professional Employees

"Had this been any large employer in the state of Minnesota, we would have seen the parties working together 24 hours straight to get a resolution," said Monroe. "They've shown they can do it before. They did it for Northwest. They did it for Dayton Hudson. And yet they can't do it for their own workers."

Officials representing the two largest public employee unions say they intend to hold a rally next Wednesday to encourage lawmakers to either pass a "lights on" bill or prevent any "lights on" bill that's been enacted from expiring.

Other state workers say there could be political fallout from the shutdown. Sue Triebenbach, who works for the Minnesota Department of Human Services, says she and her co-workers were frustrated that media coverage of the shutdown focused on whether the state parks would close, instead of the fate of so many jobs.

Triebenbach says many public employees will be choosing carefully during the next election cycle.

"Some people are saying their legislator from their area has to prove to them why they should vote for them come election," said Triebenbach. "A lot of people are sending letters and phone calls to the politicians involved."

Cal Ludeman said the pain felt by state employees will only grow. About 500 workers had no vacation time to ease them into the furlough, and that number will increase by an average of 250 employees a day. Those with banked vacation time will get paid until July 15.

Adding insult to injury, furloughed state workers are on standby to return to work, meaning they're using up their vacation time but can't leave on extended vacations unless they were previously approved, Ludeman said.

He also said no state workers will get Independence Day holiday pay until after the shutdown. "Paying a holiday is not a critical service," Ludeman said.

The stoppage carries a price tag of $2.2 million a day, mostly to pay out vacation and benefits to laid-off employees, Ludeman said. Minnesota is also bleeding away fees, including $135,000 alone in daily collections for drivers licenses and other applications.

If state leaders strike a deal, Ludeman said state government could return to normal quickly, but the cost will run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

(The Associated Press contributed to this report)

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