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Thursday, Oct. 1, 2009 08:52 pm

Springfield's shrinking state workforce

Will the capital city take another hit?

A state worker at the Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services enters the building where 14 employees may be cut if proposed statewide layoffs occur.
PHOTO BY PATRICK YEAGLE

Thousands of state jobs are at stake in Illinois as the largest union of state employees squares off against Gov. Pat Quinn in the fight to keep their jobs.

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 31 filed a lawsuit against the state in August to stop Quinn from cutting 2,600 state workers and mandating 12 unpaid furlough days for many of the state’s remaining workers. The AFSCME lawsuit said Quinn’s proposal violates their contractual right to bargain.

The lawsuit went to court Sept. 23, and a ruling Monday put the layoffs on hold until the union’s grievances could be addressed.

If allowed to happen, the latest deluge of layoffs will be a continuation of a trend that has seen state jobs — both statewide and in Springfield — being whittled down for almost two decades.

The Illinois State Employees’ Retirement System estimates there were about 81,000 state workers in Illinois in 1990. Compared with the 65,000 workers remaining in 2009, Illinois has seen almost a 20 percent decline in state jobs in the past 19 years. That’s 16,000 lost jobs statewide, at an average of about 842 jobs each year. The state is under a hiring freeze since Quinn took office in January, which means any state employee who retires is not replaced, further shrinking the state’s workforce.

The statewide figures are revealing, but they don’t fully show how hard the trend of shrinking state government has hit Springfield.

According to data from the Illinois Department of Employment Security, the number of state workers in Sangamon and Menard counties dropped from 23,000 in 1990 to 17,000 this year, a 26 percent decrease. On average, nearly 316 jobs have been lost each year.

The loss of those jobs has been tough for Springfield, according to Gary Plummer, president of the Greater Springfield Chamber of Commerce.

“Overall, it has been a little bit of a drag on our economic growth in the previous 10 years,” Plummer said. “Our job growth probably has not kept pace with some other comparable cities, both in Illinois and the Midwest. A big factor in that is that, at the same time we might have been adding some private-sector jobs, we saw a shrinking state government workforce.”

Victoria Clemons, executive director of Downtown Springfield, Inc., said fewer state jobs means less commerce for businesses located near former state agencies.

“Let’s say a conservative amount of 2,200 (state) employees left downtown (since 2003),” Clemons said. “That’s 2,200 visits a day, for the 200-some days that you work, where someone is not buying a soda, a lunch, a birthday card, a gift for dad or whatever. We’ve lost that amount of actual visits to the downtown area. It’s a hard hit.”

The state job shrinkage has had more visible effects on the downtown as well, according to Clemons. “There are about 650,000 square feet of office space open,” Clemons said. “I would say probably two-thirds of that was state offices.”

If Quinn’s recent layoffs come to pass, at least 183 jobs at five state agencies in and around Springfield would disappear, according to letters sent to AFSCME by agencies facing layoffs.

The letters indicate the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity, with offices on Adams Street, could lose seven employees. The Department of Revenue could lose 33 employees from its offices on Jefferson Street. Seven employees at the Department of Human Services on South Grand Avenue would be axed, as would 14 employees at the Healthcare and Family Services office on the same street. The Department of Corrections would be hardest hit, with 122 staff facing termination or relocation at facilities in Sangamon and Logan counties. Illinois Correctional Industries, which uses inmate labor to produce and sell goods like park benches and police uniforms, would lose one employee at its Sangamon County location and five at its facility in Lincoln.

The Logan Correctional Center in Lincoln will bear the brunt of the layoffs. At least 116 employees there face termination or transfer — among them 88 prison guards that would be cut or sent to work at other state prisons.

John Black, a correctional officer at Logan and head of the prison’s union, said many guards have had less than a month to plan the rest of their lives, forced to choose between losing their jobs and relocating their families to new communities if they accept positions at other prisons.

If layoffs happen, Black said, many of his fellow union members will face tough decisions and little time to make them. The guards left behind at the prison face complications as well, Black pointed out. Though IDOC has plans to release 1,000 nonviolent inmates from prison early, Black said that won’t come close to addressing the understaffing problem already present at the facility.

“We’ve got a ratio of one officer to 145 (inmates) currently,” Black said, adding that IDOC has had money allotted the past two years to hire more guards, but has not done so.

“You know what they did with that money?” he asked. “They spent it on overtime instead of hiring more staff.”

A building on the 600 block of East Washington Street sits vacant, years after the state agency once based there moved on.
PHOTO BY PATRICK YEAGLE

Even though he likely won’t lose his position or be relocated, Black still worries about the toll layoffs will have on his family. After working the overnight shift at the prison for several years, Black had finally gained enough seniority to be put on the day shift, but he will be forced back to the overnight shift if the layoffs occur.

“I’ve paid my dues, done my time on second shift, done my time on midnights,” Black explained. “You’re just now taking 100 and some guys out from underneath me, where I don’t have seniority anymore.”

Black said the state needs to consider the far-reaching effects the layoffs will have on communities when laid-off prison guards leave and take their families with them.

“You’re not only taking 100 people out of the community,” Black said. “You’re now taking my spouse out of the community, you’re taking my kids out of the school and you’re taking my tax dollars out of the district.”

Layoffs are a familiar story for some.

Linda Norbut Suits is museum program manager for the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, making her responsible for all the museum collections at the state’s many historic sites, including places like the Lincoln home, the Dana-Thomas House and the Old State Capitol.

When former governor Rod Blagojevich closed seven state parks and 12 state historic sites in November 2008, Suits was among the casualties.

The personnel budget for IHPA had been cut in half in July 2008, which meant layoffs were right around the corner.

“I remember thinking we were all going to get laid off,” Suits said. “I have a pretty good radar for those kinds of things, and I’ve weathered a lot of things. That one, I knew we were going to lose our jobs.” Suits was one of 24 workers at IHPA whose jobs were on the chopping block, and the prospect of being cut was a continual source of stress.

“Part of it was the yo-yo effect,” Suits said, explaining that the cuts had been pushed back numerous times, each time giving IHPA workers hope of staying on the job. “I had made peace with it, and then I thought, ‘Okay, maybe it’s not going to happen.’ It was that whipsaw that made it that much worse. By the time we were finally laid off, we were just a wreck — physically and mentally, completely exhausted.”

Suits and the others punched the clock for the last time when the seven parks and 12 historical sites closed their gates in November 2008. Then Blagojevich was impeached, and Quinn took office promising to reopen the parks and historic sites. He followed through in March, and Suits went back to work, but the budget crisis that precipitated the closures and layoffs remained.

Facing a record budget deficit between $8.95 billion and $12.26 billion, Quinn and the rest of the state’s leadership have proposed plenty of revenue options to fill the budget hole — gambling expansion, income tax increase and more.

Quinn rejected the General Assembly’s budget in July, instead calling for $1 billion in spending cuts, which he said required cutting 2,600 state jobs and mandating 12 unpaid furlough days for many of those that remained.

“The wolf is at the door,” Quinn told reporters. “It’s important that we protect the people of Illinois and the basic services of our government. At the same time, we can’t have any frills or extravagance in government.”

Quinn told AFSCME he’d have to cut 2,500 more jobs if they didn’t accept a wage freeze, later asking them to accept a pay cut of 11 to 15 percent, which would still leave 1,000 jobs at stake, according to AFSCME spokesman Anders Lindall.

“I don’t think it takes a genius to realize that’s unacceptable to us,” Lindall told Illinois Times. He said Quinn also asked AFSCME to revisit the bargaining table to renegotiate the state’s health care contract with workers.

“There are many ways the state can address the budget problem and cut costs without cutting employees,” Lindall said. “We’ve recommended a number of ways, like raising the income tax and reevaluating contracts for services that state workers could perform.”

While the fight over layoffs continues, museum manager Linda Norbut Suits said her own layoff experience taught her it is important to remember the human toll such cuts can have.

“Its effects are far wider than you might think,” Suits said. “You read about these things in the newspaper, but they’re real people. And it doesn’t just affect the people laid off. It affects everybody.”

Contact Patrick Yeagle at pyeagle@illinoistimes.com.
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