Idled Minn. public employees holding on -- for now

State Capitol rally
Seventeen-year-old Claire Thomas shouts during a rally at the Minnesota State Capitol in St. Paul, Minn. on Wednesday, July 6, 2011. Both of Thomas' parents are state employees and have been furloughed as the state's six-day-old shutdown continues in a dispute over state spending and how to erase a $5 billion deficit.
AP Photo/The St. Paul Pioneer Press, Ben Garvin

Kent Mechels spent the last three Christmases away from his family plowing snow off Minnesota roads so people could drive safely. It was a hardship he accepted as part of the job, he said.

But Mechels' latest sacrifice - getting laid off during a state government shutdown now entering its second week - has him thinking about quitting.

"I'm looking at other state agencies in different states right now. I've lived in Minnesota my entire life. I may be leaving," said Mechels, a single father from Rochester. "When the state government treats their employees like this, I don't need to be part of it."

Many of the 22,000 public employees out of work in Minnesota's budget impasse say they will get through the extended layoff by tapping into personal savings, relying on a spouse's income or unemployment checks, and making household spending cuts. But others are looking for new jobs, creating the potential for a brain drain that would be one more negative from the nation's longest state government shutdown in a decade.

Erik Pakieser, an emergency planner for the state transportation department, took to Twitter soon after the shutdown to shop his services for what he hopes could be a better-paying job in the private sector. The state stands to lose an employee it spent a lot of money training, the St. Anthony Village man said.

"If I get a better job, great. If I don't, I'm going to get my state job back eventually," he said. "Who knows? Maybe there's a silver lining in all this."

Isaias Petros, of Minneapolis, works in land management with the Department of Transportation and said he doesn't have much money saved to get through the shutdown. Though he is single with no children, Petros said he needs at least a temporary job to pay back some student loans.

"I was not ready for this," he said, adding that he was actively looking for "anything" that could help him support himself.

Not everyone is job hunting.

Brent Anderson, who manages Whitewater State Park in southeastern Minnesota, has a wife who works and said he simply plans to cut back on expenses. Anderson is spending more time volunteering at the Goodview Fire Department, catching up on paperwork and thinking about painting his house trim.

One of the biggest shutdown casualties in Anderson's family is his teenage daughter. She was scheduled to take her driver's license test last Tuesday and was excited about getting behind the wheel. Now she'll have to wait because the state is not offering driving tests during the shutdown.

"It's a little disappointment for a 16-year-old," Anderson said.

Jim Ullmer, of Crystal, a commercial vehicle inspector for the Department of Public Safety, has been babysitting his 18-month-old granddaughter, who he took to an anti-shutdown union rally at the Capitol last week.

"We've cut back and skipped a lot of things just in preparation," Ullmer said. "Right now I'm just babysitting little Anna. ... She's a full-time job and I love doing it, but I'd much rather be out doing my job."

Ullmer also has been spending time on the phone. He's the chief steward statewide for members in his agency who belong to the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. He tells members curious about how long the shutdown will last to call their legislators.

"Ask them. They're the ones who are keeping us out here," Ullmer said.

The workers' money woes contrast sharply with the position of state lawmakers, who are still eligible for their salaries during the shutdown - although some have chosen not to take them. And while their unions are a traditional power base for Democrats and support for Dayton remains strong, it's not universal.

Brian Lindholt, of Minneapolis, says Republicans could end the shutdown simply by meeting the Democratic governor halfway.

"This is real. This is not a joke," said Lindholt, a father of three who works for the Department of Transportation. "This is real life and we're without a job right now because ... they are holding the majority as legislators so they think they can strong-arm the governor."

But Pakieser, who belongs to the Minnesota Association of Professional Employees, criticized the unions for their close alliance with the governor.

"I feel like Dayton has gone out of the way to mislead people about his compromise attitude," Pakieser said. He said a video is circulating on YouTube of Dayton imploring lawmakers in February to join him in pledging not to shut down the government, yet Dayton vetoed all major state agency funding bills Republicans passed at the end of the session.

"It just looks to me like he wanted to force a shutdown. ... He chose to spread maximum pain throughout the state government," Pakieser said.

Some, like Mechels, say both parties deserve blame.

"They're hired to do a job," Mechels said. "They're not doing their job, and they're using us for pawns."

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

Your support matters.

You make MPR News possible. Individual donations are behind the clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives. Help ensure MPR remains a resource that brings Minnesotans together.