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Thursday, Nov. 18, 2004 06:26 pm

Ms. Hatchett’s job

Wanda Hatchett joined the Illinois Department of Transportation as a file clerk just three months after graduating from Lanphier High School. Some 34 years later, after working in a variety of jobs at the state agency, the lifelong Springfield resident now plans to retire.

Though just 52 years old, Hatchett has grown weary of toiling in what she calls IDOT's "high-stress and hostile" office environment, and she resents the mandatory overtime hours she must work as a result of recent staffing cuts.

Early last month, Hatchett tried to participate in an early-retirement initiative being offered by the state. She was barred from the program on a technicality. "Some jobs were included, some jobs were excluded," she says. "Unfortunately, my job was excluded."

Gov. Rod Blagojevich devised the job-buyout program as a way of weaning thousands of workers off the state payroll without resorting to layoffs. His office estimated that the program, which officially ended this month, would cut as many as 3,000 positions and save as much as $80 million.

The Legislature approved the program in July and packaged it in the fiscal-year 2005 budget. It was administered in two phases during a period of roughly 10 weeks starting in mid-August.

In the first phase, early retirees were offered double their accumulated pension contributions plus interest. The catch: Employees would have to forfeit future pension benefits. Just 559 people enrolled.

The second phase, which began Oct. 4 and ran through Nov. 1, proved slightly more popular. Under this plan, state employees who quit their jobs would receive a week's salary for each year they worked for the state, for up to 13 years. These employees would not be required to give up their pension benefits.

More than 700 state employees enrolled, but many others, including Hatchett, were turned down.

 

For the last 19 years, Hatchett has worked in IDOT's permit office. Her job title is vehicle permit evaluator, and she earns a base salary of $3,200 per month plus overtime pay. She is responsible for routing truckers who haul everything from mobile homes to gas and water tanks and issuing them permits to travel the state's highways.

In short, she is charged with making sure that trucks don't get stuck under bridges and roads don't crumble under the weight of heavy loads.

On Oct. 6, she applied for the early-retirement initiative, which would have enabled her to receive a lump-sum payment while continuing to draw from a pension account. Had her application been accepted, Hatchett says, she stood to receive a nest egg of nearly $10,000 before taxes.

But Hatchett's position is one of just 20 at IDOT that is barred from the early-retirement incentive program. This is not unusual: Of the 14,100 job titles that exist in state government, only 600 representing 22,500 workers were invited to participate.

Still, Hatchett feels cheated. She has held other job titles during her decades-long career -- when she worked in IDOT's accident-report office -- that would have made her a candidate for the severance package. And some of her fellow IDOT employees have job descriptions virtually identical to her own -- but their titles are different, allowing them to enroll.

She points to the IDOT position of engineering technician IV, which is also responsible for issuing truck permits. The main distinction: An ET IV handles trucks that haul heavier loads.

"Other people who worked half as much time as I did are eligible," complains Hatchett. "They're doing the same work I'm doing, but just because their job title is different, they get to participate in the plan and I don't."

Hatchett is not alone. Scores of other state workers filed applications for the program though their job titles barred them from consideration, says Paul Miller, assistant general counsel with the Governor's Office of Management and Budget.

"The overwhelming majority of rejected applications were because of ineligible titles," says Miller. "Many claimed that their job functions mirrored the titles that were being considered."

All of these applicants were denied, he says, and some have since filed appeals.

Miller says the Governor'sOffice of Management and Budget, Central Management Services, and state-agency directors determined which job titles would be eligible for the program. But in a recent internal communication secured by Illinois Times, IDOT Secretary Tim Martin told Hatchett that he "wasn't given a choice in what titles" would be included from his agency.

Regardless, the list of titles was written into the legislation, says Miller, so it "could not be tinkered with." He says the program sought to exclude so-called front-line workers, the meaning of which is murky at best.

"There's no definition of 'front-line employee,'" says Becky Carroll, spokeswoman for the Governor's Office of Management and Budget. "It's a position where the employee interacts directly with the public, providing direct services to clients.

"They are positions that we deem we cannot get by without, that are critical to the operation of state government."

Carroll admits that this is a "generic definition" of the term; a laundry worker for the Department of Corrections is considered a front-line employee even though he or she does not "interact directly with the public."

Hatchett was most likely exempted from the early-retirement program because the agency has so few vehicle-permit evaluators, says IDOT spokesman Matt Vanover. Whereas there are nearly 400 ET IVs at IDOT, just 13 people have Hatchett's job title, making it a difficult position to fill.

Whatever the reason for her rejection, Hatchett is disgusted. She has complained to the American Civil Liberties Union and is considering litigation. She still plans to retire next month but is unsure how she will continue to pay off her mortgage. "It's like a slap in the face," she says.

"It's like they're saying, 'We'll use you for 34 years, now get out.' "

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