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Thursday, Dec. 29, 2005 04:33 am

Labor force

The state hopes for the best as it replaces computer contractors

Remember the day your cursor froze at work and the computer guy hired just a few days earlier promised that everything would be fine? Just a few more minutes, he promised, as he sat at your desk typing madly while you got a cup of coffee. Then another cup. And another. An hour later, you finally thought that you were back in business, only to discover that your e-mail didn’t work anymore. This sort of thing won’t happen to state workers or the public, the state of Illinois vows, when state employees replace hundreds of computer-services contractors whose contracts will be terminated on Dec. 31. “Absolutely, positively no,” proclaims Becky Carroll, spokeswoman for the governor’s budget office, when asked whether there’s any chance a computer meltdown will hit when the private sector turns computer systems over to government employees. “I have had a couple of conversations with folks who are pretty involved with all this. They’re fairly comfortable that they’ll make a smooth transition. Agencies have been searching diligently for qualified candidates. Overall, the transition should be pretty smooth.”
“Fairly” comfortable? At least one outgoing contractor isn’t comfortable at all. John Kruger, a consultant who’s losing his contract to oversee databases at the Department of Human Services, says that switching from contractors to in-house computer geeks is like switching engineers midjourney on a train that’s running on time. The stakes are high. “Any database is the heart of any company or agency,” Kruger says. “It houses all the vital information about the programs and the people who applied for and received benefits. For someone who’s really knowledgeable [about computers], it takes a minimum of three months to get them started and six months to get them comfortable.” The state recently put on the state payroll a contractor who had been key in keeping DHS databases up to snuff, so that agency should be OK, Kruger predicts. However, computer systems at several other agencies, including Central Management Services, Commerce and Economic Opportunity, Children and Family Services, Employment Security, Natural Resources, and the Illinois State Police, are changing hands. Some contract employees who have no-compete clauses in their contracts are forbidden from immediately taking state jobs, Kruger says. The switch has been years in the making, says Anders Lindall, spokesman for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which represents about 37,000 state workers. The union and the state in 1993 agreed to hire state workers to replace contractors, Lindall says, but a firm deadline of Dec. 31 wasn’t set until contract negotiations were completed in 2004. “The union said, ‘Let’s set a deadline for when this can get cleaned up,’ ” Lindall explains. “The state said, ‘How about 18 months from now?’ The state has been aware of this timetable of their own choosing.” All told, slightly more than 900 contractors will be replaced by 600 state employees, Carroll says. However, the state won’t save any money, she says. 
The switch is obviously good for the union, which will walk away with a larger bargaining unit. Lindall says that contractors tend to make less money than state workers, and the state also doesn’t pay for benefits such as health insurance and pensions. Lindall says that the deal is also good for taxpayers because it will make state government more efficient and accountable. “I see it as a win-win situation for everyone,” he says. Kruger says that he doesn’t think he’ll have much trouble finding a new job, but he scoffs at the notion that the change will make government more efficient. “The union wants more heads, and this is the way they’re going to get them,” he says. “Other than that, I don’t understand why they’re doing it. It’s political, and I’m not into politics that much.”
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