Vt. layoffs may hit local services hard


BRATTLEBORO -- Now that talks between the Douglas administration and the Vermont State Employees Association have broken down, administrators around Windham County are waiting to hear how their offices will be affected by the cuts that were ordered after the two sides were unable to reach an agreement last week.

And while southeastern Vermont was not hit hard by the last round of layoffs, when 123 workers lost their jobs, state directors are expecting that the region will not be so lucky this time.

"We dodged a bullet thus far, but the governor is playing hard ball and I’m not sure how long we can expect to be that lucky," said Deborah Carpenter, director of the Brattleboro Economic Services office of the Department for Children and Families. "We are not going to know until later in the week how these cuts are going to affect us locally."

The administration and union negotiators tried to reach an agreement last week on ways to trim about $7.4 million from the current budget.

The talks left both sides blaming the other for the impasse, and now between 200 and 300 state employees are expected to receive pink slips in the coming months.

High-level state commissioners plan to meet in the coming days to talk about ways to find the savings, and they will try to spread the layoffs around the state.

Until then, Carpenter said, her staff of 16 is keeping busy with increased caseloads brought on by the struggling economy.

"The morale now is the lowest that I’ve ever seen it," she said. "We are working hard to take care of everybody because we know the unprecedented impact this has had on the staff. It’s been a pretty tough time to be a state worker."

Dennise Casey, communications director for Gov. James Douglas, said it is too early to know which offices will be forced to lay off workers.

She said the administration will determine how many presently unfilled positions can remain vacant and if there are any more workers who will elect to take buyouts, though many state employees who were nearing retirement already left earlier this year during the first round of cuts.

"At this time, we are working to prepare a list of positions that will be slated for elimination," Casey said in an e-mail message. "It is unclear how many positions will be eliminated, where those positions are located geographically or how many state employees will be (laid off) because we plan to look first are retirements and vacancies and we are still in the planning stage at this time."

The administration met with labor leaders in Montpelier last week after the Legislature ordered the payroll cuts because declining state revenues left a hole in the 2010 budget.

Doug Gibson, communications coordinator for the Vermont State Employees Association, said employees in state offices across Vermont are wondering how the layoffs will be determined.

"There is no information on what the plan is and who is going to be cut," Gibson said. "The last time around, Brattleboro was not heavily affected, but what’s in store is a guessing game and it’s very frightening. Morale is very low and people are scared to death."

John Swartz, the field director for the Agency of Human Services in Brattleboro, said even though most of the region’s social service workers escaped layoffs earlier this year, most employees are bracing for the announcements which will probably come within the next few months.

"Every effort is being made to minimize the impact to services. During the last round, social workers and probation officers were by in large exempt, but I don’t know if that will be the case with this round," Swartz said. "We can’t continue to be spared, so the impact to the people who will be laid off is going to be heavy."

Howard Weiss-Tisman can be reached at hwtisman@reform-er.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 279.


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