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With a few exceptions, public employees escaping hardships, so far

As layoffs surge to historic highs, public workers have layers of protection

April 17, 2020 by Richard Moore

Record layoffs are sweeping across the economic landscape as officials lock the nation down during the coronavirus pandemic, and, with few exceptions, most notably the public sector, almost all industries are feeling the pain.

Some sectors are more vulnerable than others. Among the most heavily exposed industries and companies are hotels, restaurants, gyms, cruise operators, airlines, construction, theme parks, conventions, food service, tech, and retail. Less publicly prominent industries are suffering steep job losses, too, including mining, oil and gas, employment services, and shipping. 

The truth is, though, as imploding demand and consequent layoffs screech through the economy, each industry knocks over the one next to it, like dominoes. 

Initial unemployment claims have accordingly marched to new highs. For the week ending March 21 in Wisconsin, 69,342 initial claims were filed, compared to 5,216 for the same week a year ago.

And the gusher hasn’t stopped. On Sunday, March 22, 10,872 claims were filed, and the number exploded on Monday, March 23, with 21,250 claims filed.

That totaled 101,464 claims since and including March 15, a period of just nine days.

Nationally, the full impact has yet to be reported, but for the week ending March 14, the U.S. Department of Labor reported seasonally adjusted initial claims of 281,000, an increase of 70,000, or 33 percent, from the previous week’s unrevised level of 211,000. 

That was the highest level for initial claims since Sept. 2, 2017, when it was 299,000.

But this week’s numbers are expected to be far higher. In a note to investors, Goldman Sachs analysts said state-level anecdotes pointed to an unprecedented surge in layoffs, with initial unemployment claims this week rising to as many as 2.25 million.

Only a few industries are likely to remain unscathed and none completely so. Emergency and health care workers are needed on the job, obviously, and a few sectors like grocery stores and paper mills and related firms are doing well at least temporarily, and even hiring, as customers try to stock up on food and toilet paper.

One other economic sector is doing pretty good, too, and that’s government workers. And, as layoffs spread like wildfire through the private sector, some are wondering if the public sector will share in the pain.

A protected class

So far, while some public employees are feeling the same pain as private-sector workers, most seem well protected.

For one thing, many public employees are serving on the front lines of the war against the disease, and so their jobs are anything but endangered, and rightly so — public health and health care workers, social services workers, first responders, law enforcement, and information technology personnel are all vital components in the effort to curb the spread of the disease.

In a way, they are sharing pain, just in a different way than job loss. During the pandemic, like similar private-sector workers, many of those essential public servants are working long hours under stressful conditions.

Beyond essential workers, though, many public employees are protected by generous paid-time-off programs or administrative leave programs that amount to safety nets that most private-sector workers don’t have. In paid time off, employees can accrue hours, and, for those who have accrued time, they could use their “bank” to pay for time off during an emergency such as COVID-19.

In Milwaukee County, county executive Chris Abele signed a supplemental paid leave administrative order that applies to all employees and provides a separate bank of hours to use in response to COVID-19. 

“All full-time, part-time, seasonal and hourly workers will be granted a minimum of 40 hours of SPL Bank time to use,” the order states. “While there are common-sense limitations to accessing the SPL Bank hours, this measure will provide a financial safety net to make it easier for employees to be able to stay home when necessary. Employees will adhere to departmental procedures consistent with taking time off in any other situation.”

In New Orleans, workers who could work from home were ordered to do so, while essential workers in the coronavirus emergency were ordered to report for work. But 500 other nonessential workers who could not work from home will also receive special “civil pay” while they stay home and don’t work.

In Mississippi, special legislation was passed to protect all government workers, not just those in critical positions. The Republican governor had asked for a bill guaranteeing that school district and employees of city and local governments would be paid even if workers were told to stay home.

Back home

In Wisconsin, most public employees also seem to be better protected than their private-sector counterparts from the coronavirus economic storm.

Most teachers and administration, for example, are covered by contracts that keep their pay coming during the closures. Many hourly staff are not covered by such contracts, but a growing number of school boards have voted to continue their pay at least temporarily. 

For example, LUHS this week voted to pay hourly employees through April 15.

To be fair, while some have criticized paying teachers when schools are closed, whether teachers continue to work is dependent on the school district, and, in many districts, public and private, teachers are directed to prepare daily classroom lessons for posting online in virtual formats which students can access at home.

As for county workers, in Oneida County, county board chairman Dave Hintz said county workers would be sharing in the pain.

“The short answer is, yes, they will, and they are already feeling it,” Hintz said. “Of course, we have to provide essential services — our sheriff’s department, first responders, and others. There’s an election coming up, and (county clerk Tracy Hartman) is working very hard to manage that.”

Right now, Hintz said, there’s no hiring freeze, but he did say the county is only processing applications for essential personnel during the emergency. Oneida County has seven positions posted, of which at least four could be considered essential personnel.

“We are no longer processing requests for noncritical positions,” he said. “Say a summer flagging position, a person may send an email but we are not actively pursuing or taking action other than critical positions.”

And while he did not say any layoffs had occurred, Hintz did say some county employees could potentially lose their jobs, though it was the county’s goal to “minimize the bite.” 

Hintz said the county was actively trying to enable workers to work from home, if their jobs made that possible, while others who could not remain productive in their own jobs were being shifted to other tasks where help is needed.

For example, Hintz said, some workers are being shifted to help the public health department conduct contact monitoring for people who may have had contact with someone who tested positive for coronavirus, or to help with the administration of the upcoming April election.

Hintz said he had authorized the purchase of new laptops to enable more workers to work from home.

“The bottom line is, no one knows how long this will last,” he said. “We know small businesses are hurting. Everybody is hurting. What we’re doing is trying to work together to shorten the bite. We have to flatten the curve.”

Dane County

In Dane County, officials did put a hiring freeze in place.

In putting the order in place, Dane County executive Joe Parisi said the world had changed more dramatically in just a few days than anyone could have imagined, and he said Dane County’s budget would be one of the casualties of the national and global crisis. 

Lost investment income and sales tax collections would have significant impacts, as would smaller sources of revenue such as parks revenue and zoo concessions. As such, Parisi wrote, he was implementing a freeze on noncritical county hiring.

“These are historic times,” he wrote. “We face a challenge like none we have experienced in the modern era. We also have an incredibly talented team within county government, confronting this challenge head-on.”

Meanwhile, while more hiring freezes and possible layoffs are possible in local government, the real pain for public employees may come later in the year when local governments prepare 2021 budgets.

With budgets already tight on the local level, and the growing possibility that budgeted revenues for this year might fall short, there will be ever more pressure in the fall for local officials to cut excess spending and needless personnel.

Richard Moore is the author of the forthcoming “Storyfinding: From the Journey to the Story” and can be reached at richardmoorebooks.com.

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