State workers live in limbo

Budget woes strip workers' security

By Dave Harmon
AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF
Tuesday, April 1, 2003

In the high-rise state office buildings surrounding the Capitol, the rumors whip through the hallways and cubicles, seeping into conversations and e-mails.

"Everybody's talking about it. You hear about it in the cafeteria; you hear about it everywhere you go," said one Railroad Commission employee.

State employees are facing the shadow of what their private sector counterparts already have suffered: layoffs.

State leaders, trying to fill a .9 billion budget shortfall without raising taxes, want agencies to chop 12.5 percent from their budgets over the next two years. Agencies have stopped hiring and have put thousands of state jobs on the budget-cutting table.

The Legislature will make the final decision on the number of job cuts, and Central Texas, home to nearly 45,000 of the state's roughly 143,000 full-time workers, stands to take the biggest hit. During the past two years, state government jobs have provided a cushion for a local economy hit by job losses in the high-tech sector and have given employment to many people laid off from those industries.

That's no longer the case.

The University of Texas at Austin, which employs the equivalent of about 12,000 full-time workers, could lose more than 500 jobs. The prison system, centered in Huntsville, could lose 850 of its roughly 40,000 jobs. The attorney general's office could shrink by up to 400 positions.

But the biggest potential layoffs are in the areas of health and human services, which make up about 30 percent of the state budget.

"We're just taking it one day at a time," said Mary Earls, a risk manager at the Austin State School, which employs more than 1,000 people.

Under current budget scenarios, one of the state's 13 state schools, which provide residential care for people with severe mental retardation, would close to save money. The residents would be sent to the remaining schools. The employees would be out of jobs.

In the weeks ahead, lawmakers will decide whether to eliminate more than 1,500 jobs at the Department of Mental Health and Mental Retardation and about 1,100 positions at the Department of Human Services.

They also will consider bills that would merge health and human services agencies and combine many of their administrative functions, eliminating jobs in the process.

Sen. Kip Averitt, R-McGregor, has filed a bill to offer state employees three months' pay as an early retirement incentive. And at each agency, administrators have evaluated which jobs are the most crucial; the Railroad Commission had employees fill out "efficiency reviews" rating how essential their duties are to the agency.

The Department of Criminal Justice has decided it will lay off administrative staff, chaplains, parole officers and teachers to avoid touching the officers who guard inmates, spokesman Larry Todd said.

"Our primary responsibility is running a safe and efficient prison," he said. "We have to keep our correction officers."

In state offices in Austin and around Texas, the layoff talk has stirred a mixture of worry, fatalism and denial.

"I have a family, I have a mortgage, I have a daughter who is totally dependent on us," said Earls, who has worked at the Austin State School for 13 years and whose husband also works for a state agency.

"To be honest with you, I don't know what I would do, because I've worked here 23 years, I've dedicated the majority of my life to this place," added Barbara Brown, a direct care specialist.

Earls and Brown also wonder what would happen to the more than 400 residents if the campus closed. They say it has taken the staff years to learn what certain expressions and gestures mean from some of the nonverbal residents.

State jobs have traditionally been safe jobs. The pay is generally lower than what a worker would receive in a similar private-sector job, but the job security is generally higher.

But not this year.

"A lot of people from the high-tech companies have come to the state for lower pay, because of the security it seemed to offer, and now we're wondering if we're going to have to work at (a fast food restaurant)," said the Railroad Commission worker who, like a half dozen other state employees interviewed last week, asked not to be identified. "We don't want to step out of line and do anything that would ruffle anyone's feathers. I'm a single parent."

Her friend, a Texas Education Agency employee, has adopted the philosophy of not worrying about what can't be controlled.

"Hope for the best, that's about all you can do," she said. "There's no sense in getting yourself in an uproar."

dharmon@statesman.com; 445-3645