Robin Upton-Sukeforth knew she could be laid off.
As one of 2,739 state workers whose positions are fully or partially funded with federal dollars, the 57-year-old claims adjudicator at the Disability Determination Services office in Winthrop was told last week that the shutdown of federal government could lead to a temporary furlough.
Upton-Sukeforth and 51 of her co-workers received the news Monday evening. Don’t come in Tuesday, her supervisor said. Or Wednesday. Or Thursday.
“They said to come back Friday, but there were no guarantees,” Upton-Sukeforth said.
Now nearly 22 percent of the state’s 13,000 workers — the ones who rely on federal funds for their salaries — are bracing for more bad news as the partial federal shutdown drags on.
As Democrats and Republicans in Washington, D.C., continue exchanging blame, the effects of the partial shutdown of federal government are pushing into state governments where operations are intertwined with federal money. From Maine to California, state officials are trying to assess how long federally funded employees can continue to do their jobs in state agencies.
More than 1,000 state workers in Arkansas were told to go home last week. Governors in New Hampshire, Vermont and California have begun preparing similar directives.
On Monday, the LePage administration announced 52 temporary layoffs at the Winthrop disability center in addition to four furloughed employees at the Department of Health and Human Services and three others at the Maine Department of Labor. Last week, 406 technicians in the Maine Army and Air National Guard were furloughed, although most were later recalled.
However, with the federal shutdown moving into its second full week, the LePage administration has stepped up its assessment of effects from a long-term stalemate. It hasn’t been easy.
Not only are there federally funded employees, there are also multiple revenue streams and grants that flow from Washington. Each has a different funding level, a different time line. Some dollars are drying up now. Others may fund salaries and operations until the end of the month if congressional lawmakers can reach an accord on the shutdown and the debt ceiling debate.
“We have to look at which streams affect which people and which positions … and how much time we have, given the available funds,” said Julie Rabinowitz, spokeswoman at the Maine Department of Labor. “It’s a rolling kind of schedule.”
The stakes are especially high at Maine labor department. The agency is 97 percent federally funded, and federal dollars pay the salaries of most of its 500 employees. According to the LePage administration, there are nearly 2,000 federally funded employees at the Department of Health and Human Services, the oversight agency for the Disability Determination Services office.
It is even confusing the individual workers. Rabinowitz said that when news broke late Monday that the Winthrop office was temporarily closing, DHHS received a number of calls from other state employees wondering whether they had been furloughed, too.
“They thought they couldn’t go into work,” Rabinowitz said.
At the Labor office, the potential of a furlough and its uncertain duration weighs heavily on agency employees, Rabinowitz said.
“It’s one thing if you know you just need to stretch your dollar one week or two weeks, but if you have to stretch your dollar to cover four or five weeks, that’s a different situation,” she said.
That’s the situation Upton-Sukeforth now faces. She was too busy to think about getting laid off last week. Claims at the disability office are voluminous, she said, and there’s little time think about anything but adjudicating the claims and getting them out the door.
“If you don’t have cases done, you have people calling, asking about the status of their case,” she said.
And the cases are piling up even though the office is closed. “The work doesn’t stop just because we’re not there,” Upton-Sukeforth said.
The churn of government also weighs heavily on state officials who have to calculate how long they can keep federally funded portions running amid uncertain commitments from the federal government.
Sawin Millett, the governor’s finance chief, said Tuesday that the agencies are trying to determine whether they can and should float some employees and operations with state money, and for how long. The calculation depends on what Millett described as “unequivocal assurances” that the feds will reimburse the state. Such assurances, he said, have not been easy to obtain.
Last week, David Agnew, head of the White House Office of Intergovernmental Affairs, held a conference call with state budget officers. According to a report in Governing magazine, Agnew provided some assurances that states would be reimbursed, but he made few promises.
The situation is less clear if the shutdown collides with a looming debate about the federal debt ceiling, which has become a pressure point in the political fight in the Beltway. If Congress doesn’t raise the debt ceiling to green-light previously approved spending, the country could default and states will have to decide how to maintain programs and employees reliant on federal money.
“The longer you continue to employ people in those high (federal) match categories without some assurance of reimbursement, the more you’re drawing on general fund monies that won’t be there if this continued shutdown extends beyond October,” Millett said.
Meanwhile, the LePage administration is conducting an evaluation of all of state gtovernment to determine which agencies and employees are the most affected. Officials were unable to provide an agency-by-agency breakdown on Tuesday. They also couldn’t identify which agency would be affected by another furlough order, or when.
Adrienne Bennett, the governor’s spokeswoman, said Monday that the administration hoped to have a full assessment out this week.
Millett said the administration already knew which departments were most vulnerable: DHHS, the labor department and the Department of Defense, Veterans and Emergency Management.
It’s there that state employees are on pins and needles, according to Maryanne Turowski, the legislative liaison for the Maine State Employees Association.
“It’s creating angst among everyone,” she said.
LePage met with representative of state employees union last week. While the governor and the employees union have clashed frequently, Turowski said, LePage seemed “genuinely concerned about a crisis that was not of his making, out of his control.”
However, the union is worried that some furlough orders could be ordered unnecessarily. She noted that New Hampshire and Vermont had not furloughed employees in their disability claims centers as Maine did Monday.
Millett said Tuesday that the decision was made when the state couldn’t obtain assurances from the federal government that operations in Winthrop would be reimbursed when the shutdown ended.
Meanwhile, other states have begun preparing federally funded state employees for a temporary work stoppage. On Monday, state officials in Minnesota told more than 100 federally funded employees at its Department of Health, including 71 nurses, that they could be laid off. The state has 3,000 federally funded positions within state government.
In Vermont, Labor chief Annie Noonan reported a 400 new claims for unemployment insurance. Maine hasn’t experienced a similar spike yet, but if it does, it will pose a tricky situation for the Labor Department. While the federal government continues to grant unemployment claims during a shutdown, Robinowitz said state staff handling those claims are almost entirely federally funded. She said there was enough funding to administer the unemployment insurance program for at least four more weeks.
While the state makes its preparations, federally funded state employees are making their own.
Upton-Sukeforth said she’s had time to consider the effect of her layoff. She assessing which bills need to be paid, which ones can be put off.
“I’m in survivor mode,” she said.
Her husband, Lee Sukeforth, works for the Maine Department of Transportation. They don’t think Lee’s salary is tied to federal funding, but they aren’t certain.
What they know is that a few people in Washington are having a big effect on their lives.
“This small group of people is affecting everybody,” she said. “It’s so black and white to them, but the rest of us are in a gray area.”
Steve Mistler — 791-6345