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State employees go back to work
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Sign on the door of the headquarters of the Department of Human Services. (MPR Photo/Annie Baxter)
Fax machines are humming again and computers are emerging from their eight-day slumber, now that Minnesota's nearly 9,000 state employees are back to work. The state's first partial government shutdown locked many workers out of their jobs until Monday. Their return to work hinges on a temporary "lights on" budget bill that ended the shutdown. But a permanent state budget must be passed by Thursday night, or workers could be laid off again. Some workers say they're relieved to be back on the job. But they have to contend with a heavier workload and feelings of resentment over the shutdown.

St. Paul, Minn. — For Diana McGee at Minnesota's Department of Transportation, the return to work has evoked feelings for which she doesn't even have a name. That's because while the shutdown's over, lawmakers have yet to pass a final budget.

"It's not anxiety, it's not stress. It's just a feeling in your guts that you can't really describe. It's just eating you up until all this is all done," she says. "And I don't know if it will be all done for us."

McGee's division in MnDOT acts as a "one stop shop" for trucking. It's where truckers get licenses and oversized load permits. A court order permitted some workers to return to work at the trucking center last Friday. McGee says that day, workers generated about 700 permits; that's twice the usual rate.

Other state agencies also shoulder staggering work loads as they rebound from the shutdown.

Ellen Paquin handles child support payment petitions at the Minnesota Department of Human Services. She says on the first day back, she and her colleagues were greeted with several days' worth of cases. She and her colleague usually handle about 70 a week.

"There were 140 cases," Paquin exclaims. "And you have to understand. Cases continue to come in!"

Though Paquin says she prides herself on customer service, she's too busy even to answer the phone.

"You know that you've been barely able to keep up prior to the shutdown. Now you're hit with a blow of a week away from the office. We were barely able to keep up to begin with. What are we going to do now? How are we going to dig ourselves out of this hole?" she asks.

Paquin says the burden of the workload weighs all the more heavily upon her because she doesn't have any vacation time left. She exhausted her vacation balance last week during the shutdown. If there's another shutdown, she'll have to go without pay.

Other workers also worry that another shutdown could cause them even more serious problems than the first. Jim Lawser updates Web information about public assistance for the Department of Human Services. He says his partner, who also works for DHS, has AIDS and needs constant health benefits.

"If he loses anything and is unable to get his meds, the virus gets resistant if there's an interruption in medication," Lawser notes. "They promised us medical benefits through the end of July. But we didn't know anything after that."

Lawser acknowledges last week's shutdown poses novel challenges for everyone. He points out he and his colleagues aren't sure what to do with their time sheets. That's just a small part of the confusion.

"Everything's in limbo. We're trying to get caught up on what kind of work is critical and what kind of work slips through the cracks," he says.

For Diana McGee at MnDOT, it's the kind of atmosphere that leads to some hard thinking. Though she says she's proud of her job, the threat of another shutdown scares her.

"It does make you not want to be a state employee in some ways, because you don't know what's going to happen in the future," she says.

The state government has until Thursday to vote on the final budget bill that will keep state workers on the job. In the meantime, the union representing many of the workers says it will seek restoration of pay and vacation time that workers lost during the shutdown.