Job Loss

For Valentine’s Day, we had family and friends over to visit. Conversation eventually moved on to the economy and jobs and the need for assistance. At my brother-in-law’s brother-in-law’s company, about 120 positions have been reduced to about 30 positions, his hours have been cut from 40 to 32 per week, and a friend – a 25-year veteran – was let go last week. Our friend’s son (22) and grandchild (4) are without health care. So, even as I was offering suggestions on where and when to apply for public assistance, I was considering what we’re facing in Hennepin County, too.

Many companies are going out of business (such as Circuit City), cutting some positions, wages, or hours (such as Toro or Ameriprise), and still others are instituting wage freezes (such as MNSCU, the state university system). We’re seeing a considerable increase in the demand for public services – even as the County faces its own financial crisis. It is entirely likely that by the time some of you receive this newsletter that the County will have – or will be on the brink of – instituting changes to deal with its fiscal concerns. ‘No crying wolf’ these days… the County has to deal with an immediate $20 million problem, and long-term, a potential $200 million problem. The 10-15% reductions you’ve read about are real. The Commissioners forgoing the 3.4% wage increase for themselves this year is real. Layoffs, eliminated or re-designed programs, and services are about to be real, too! This is part of why AFSCME’s Day on the Hill at the Capitol, March 11th matters!

I don’t have a crystal ball to tell me what we really face the rest of this year and next. In some of our work areas, friends and colleagues will be laid-off – much too soon, I’m afraid. In some job classifications, those who’ve been hired in the last year or two (and in some classifications, perhaps in the last 5 years or so) are at considerable risk of being laid-off. Some of those lay-offs will come outside of our bargaining units – managers and supervisors, administrative assistants, planning analysts, and IT – but except for a few jobs that might actually experience hiring in order to offset where attrition in the past year has left staffing vulnerable, there will be some of us who will lose valued friends and members of this bargaining unit.

My crystal ball doesn’t give me insight into what this year’s contract negotiations might be like. But I can tell you that the Hennepin AFSCME Policy Committee members have started to plan what we might be working with this year. We all understand how bad the County’s financial situation is. No one wants to see wage freezes put in place – or, maybe worse, the step-freezes Governor Pawlenty’s called for, too – but we can see the problem the County faces, we see Commissioners voluntarily freezing their salaries at the 2008 level, we see other government agencies putting these drastic measures in place, and we see what the public relations’ playing field is. And don’t ever forget that the Board members, who will have to approve any contract settlement we reach, are politicians who are beholden to the voting public. So, unless we want to sacrifice more of our jobs, and make our share of the remaining work that much harder, it’s entirely possible that we could be looking at severe challenges for increasing wages – not that it isn’t needed. 

But it isn’t just wages. The County is moving to self-insurance in 2011, which would be Year 2 of a two-year contract. How do we get that resolved? How do we deal with language proposals the County may come to bargain over; in the past, they’ve sought to give Supervisors the ability to demote back into the bargaining unit that they haven’t been paying dues to, or the County has sought to move us into the PTO system in lieu of separate vacation and sick leave balances, or the County has talked about a high-deductible health insurance plan called a VEBA, or we’ve discussed the elimination or tiering of access to Stability Pay. These types of changes have been the “take-aways” we’ve fought hard to protect against – even in difficult years such as 2003. Think about what and how you want your negotiators to represent you this year – and let your Local 34 E-Board members know.   

~ Wes Volkenant, AFSCME Local 34 Vice President