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Something New in Unemployment Lines: 14,000 State Government Workers With PM-State

August 19, 1991

Something New in Unemployment Lines: 14,000 State Government Workers With PM-State Layoffs-List

Undated (AP) _ Government work used to be steady work. But job security has given way to unemployment and anguish this year for more than 14,000 state workers around the nation, and many more will be laid off before the year is out.

″It was a big shock,″ said Mark Fabula, a former mental health worker who lost his job with the North Carolina Department of Human Resources. ″You don’t think about career employees with 12 years’ service being in this situation.″

You don’t ordinarily, but these are unusual times. Although most of the layoffs have been concentrated in the Northeast, states from coast to coast are slimming down, using hiring freezes, early retirements and furloughs.

For the first time in a long time, it appears, government is not a growth industry.

Twenty-four state governments cut the size of their workforces between January and July, an Associated Press survey of the 50 states found, and another four states showed no change. Twenty-three states laid off workers during that time - a total of 14,453 people.

Overall, the number of state government employees in the nation rose ever so slightly - by about 1,900 workers. Some states laid off workers in some departments while hiring workers in others, for a net increase.

Big cities, too, laid off workers. New York City is the most extreme example - it has laid off 5,134 people so far this year, by far the most by any city and more than any state.

Three of the nation’s five largest cities had fewer employees in July than they had in January.

Some of the declines in state employment can be explained by seasonal variations; for instance, state colleges employ fewer people in the summer than during the school year. But many states also hire temporary summer workers, especially in state parks, so the seasonal ups and downs may balance each other out.

And seasonal variations or not, many states adopted budgets last month that call for many more job cuts in the coming fiscal year.

″There could be well over 100,000 people who have been delivering public services who are going to suffer,″ said Sondra Dimond, a spokeswoman for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the biggest union of state and local government workers.

″Every American is going to be affected by the layoffs in a direct way,″ Ms. Dimond added, ″because these are the people who deliver public services.″

They include mental retardation aides in Connecticut, clerk-typists in Minnesota, prison guards in New York, social service caseworkers in Iowa and food service workers in Rhode Island. They run the gamut of state jobs, although most tend to be in the social services.

In most states, education, corrections and environmental services have been spared.

North Carolina, with one of the largest state workforces, eliminated over 3,000 positions from its payroll this year to shrink a $730 million deficit. Most of the jobs were already vacant, largely because of a hiring freeze, but the state still had to lay off about 500 workers.

The biggest job losses have been in New York state, where Gov. Mario Cuomo laid off the equivalent of 4,233 full-time workers. In all, Cuomo plans to reduce state employment by 18,800 jobs by the end of the fiscal year - no small contribution to a troubled state’s unemployment rolls.

″The most difficult thing I have done is to deny people the opportunity to earn their own bread,″ Cuomo said.

He added that he has tried, through an aggressive early retirment program, attrition and other methods, to reduce the number of layoffs. ″I’m satisfied we’ve done everything we could,″ he said.

The layoffs have come at a time when state and local governments are struggling to apply dwindling resources to mounting problems, such as AIDS, homelessness and crime. The federal government has been of little help. On the one hand, it has cut some domestic programs; on the other, it has increased the number of programs it requires state and local governments to carry out.

Not all states are hurting. There has been significant job growth in Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Kentucky and Washington.

″A lot of my colleagues would give their eye teeth to be in the position we’re in,″ boasted Idaho Gov. Cecil Andrus, who has been able to hire new prison guards, health and welfare workers and others.

But in most states, even those that haven’t had to lay off workers, there is a mood of austerity. Mississippi, for instance, cut about 1,400 jobs from its payroll this year without laying off a single worker.

″We put a hiring freeze in place very early so the payrolls would decline,″ said Ed Ranck, executive director of Mississippi’s Department of Finance and Administration. ″We started using attrition early rather than using layoffs and furloughs at the last minute.″

Some economists say state workers are lucky there haven’t been more layoffs.

″We have been surprised that state and local government employment has held up as well as it has, for as long as it has,″ said David Rolley, a senior financial economist at DRI-McGraw Hill, a Boston-based economic forecasting company.

Rolley said he expects between 75,000 and 100,000 state and local government jobs to be eliminated during the next six months or so. But he said he expects the decline in government employment to be temporary.

Most experts seem to agree with Rolley that government is not going to shrink in the long run. Conservatives, especially, tend to dismiss the significance of what is taking place.

″They’re trimming here and trimming there, and of course they’re howling in protest and acting like it’s the end of Western civilization, but in reality ... taxpayers are still worse off than they were two or three years ago,″ said Dan Mitchell, a tax and budget policy analyst with the Heritage Foundation.

Stephen Moore, director of fiscal studies for the Cato Institute, another conservative think tank, believes that states are paying now for their excesses in the ’80s. The states that have had to cut the most - the big Northeast states such as New York and Massachusetts - were the freest spenders in the previous decade, he says.

″This is a very new thing for states to be laying off workers. You didn’t see this often in previous recessions,″ Moore said. ″But the states have dug themselves into a deep hole, and I don’t see them getting out of it anytime soon.″

Moore credits some Democratic governors - Lawton Chiles of Florida, L. Douglas Wilder of Virginia and ″even Cuomo″ - with ″really taking the bull by the horns″ and trimming state spending and jobs.

Steven D. Gold, director of the Center for the Study of the States at the State University of New York in Albany, adds North Carolina to the list of the fiscally prudent. States that take harsh measures now, he said, may escape problems in the future.

All of which is probably little solace to people like Mark Fabula, the laid-off North Carolinian.

″The dryer sounds like it’s going to go and we had put some money aside for it. But I know now we won’t be replacing it,″ Fabula said recently. ″I guess I’ll be hanging clothes out on the line for a while because we won’t be making any major purchases.″

He said he’s optimistic that he and other state employees will be relocated eventually in other departments. But he wonders about their shaken faith in state government.

″You think of state government, of being employed there, because of the job security,″ he said. ″When this happens, you realize that security is like fog. It just disappears.″

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