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Largest layoff in state history; 22,000 workers added to unemployment pool

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Laid-off state employee
Sarah Brown, 23, works on the computer at her home in Minneapolis, Minn. Friday, July 1, 2011. Brown and her mother were both laid off from their state jobs after the government was shut down. Brown, who started with the Department of Revenue in January 2011, said she will pick up more hours at her waitressing job for additional income.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

This is the first day of what's undoubtedly the biggest layoff in state history.

About 22,000 state employees are out of work because lawmakers failed to negotiate a state budget. Most state employees believed the shutdown as inevitable. They differed widely in their expectation of how long it will last, and how they will cope if the stalemate goes on long.

Nicollet County has the highest percentage of state employees of any county in the state, 9 percent of job force. It's home to the St. Peter Regional Treatment Center, which employs about 1000 state workers. Nearly 90 percent of those workers have been ruled essential state employees and will continue work through shutdown. The county dodged a bullet, but even with that bit of good fortune people are still upset.

Debie Tsuchiya of Bloomington was laid off from her job as a health care fraud investigator at the Department of Human Services. She doesn't expect the shutdown to last long.

"I'm quite hopeful this is going to resolve in a week. That's my bottom line," Tsuchiya "So, I'll never get any unemployment."

The state continues to process employment benefits during the shutdown, but officials say the soonest state employees would receive any payment is July 17.

Tsuchiya will apply for unemployment next week, following a directive to state employees to stagger their applications based on their social security numbers.

The state Department of Employment and Economic Development reports a seven-fold increase in applications for jobless benefits compared to last week.

Mother and daughter both laid off
With her mother Diane Brown nearby, Sarah Brown, 23, cleans the kitchen of her home in Minneapolis, Minn. Friday, July 1, 2011. Diane, who works for the Department of Human Services, and Sarah, who works for the Department of Revenue, were both laid off after the state government was shut down.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

Some employees reported difficulties with online application service, but the department says the system is working.

Should the shutdown drag on, Tsuchiya said she'll be OK. Instead, she worries about younger people with kids.

"I'm close to retirement," she said. "I've got significant savings. I have no children at home. I have a husband who is gainfully employed. I could go a month without a paycheck and still eat, and pay the bills."

Jenny Foster of Hudson, Wis. was laid off from her job at the Department of Revenue. For more than a month, Foster, her husband and two teenage sons have been preparing for a shutdown. Although her husband still has his job, Foster said getting by will be difficult without her regular paycheck.  

"The loss of my wages when it's well over $600, $700 a month, that's a lot of money," she said. "You know, which bill are we going to able to pay or not pay, or delay."

Foster says the shutdown will throttle back their plans for the Independence Day. There'll be no money for fireworks and other frills.

"With it being a holiday you know the kids want to go do stuff," Foster said. "Luckily, my mother-in-law has a cabin we can go, but we're not going to go spend money to do other fun things. We can't right now."

Laid-off employees are supposed to look for other work "as a condition of receiving jobless benefits." And that's what Mark Fischer of White Bear Lake is doing. Fischer was laid off from his job running the mailroom at the DNR's office in St. Paul.

Fischer said things are going to be tight for he and his wife, Julie, if the shutdown goes on long.  His wife won't return to her job as a school aide until the fall.

Fischer is trying eke more money from his moonlighting gig at the B-Dale Club in Roseville.

"I'm picking up some extra hours at the bar," he said. "And hoping they resolve this issue quickly. Get it done. Get us back to work."

Fischer also expected the shutdown, given how lawmakers dug in their heels. But he believes they'll soon compromise.

"I think as the services stop now, the public will get more involved and I think they're going to be hearing from their constituents," Fischer said. "And hopefully that'll motivate them to get back to the table and make a decision."

Stacy Miller of St. Paul is another applicant unemployment benefits. Miller was laid of from her job at the Department of Commerce, where she works to promote energy efficiency and renewable energy.

Miller got her unemployment application in early Friday morning without any difficulty.

"It went went quite smoothly," she said. "I think the whole process took me maybe a half-hour or so. And I could do it online.

Unemployment benefits can be applied for over the phone or via the Internet. After one week, unemployed workers are eligible to collect 50 percent of their pay, up to a maximum of $578.

Miller is heading to Ohio to spend the holiday with her mother. She plans to write, and read up on industry news. She's looking forward to returning to work but uncertain of when that will be.

---- MPR Reporter Mark Steil contributed to this story.