State Layoffs Hit Molokai Hard

By Dan Murphy

The understaffed Molokai Welfare Office is already struggling to keep up with the demand from newly unemployed citizens, but their job is about to get a lot harder.

Earlier this month, the state of Hawaii notified 1,194 employees that they would be laid off in November. Workers on Molokai will be hit hard by the reduction in force.

After trimming $2 billion, Governor Linda Lingle and her office are still $786 million away from balancing the state’s budget. Lingle chose to reduce labor costs, which currently make up 70 percent of the budget, to make up for that gap.  The governor said the layoffs were a final resort.

“Outer islands, especially places like Molokai and Lanai, are going to suffer the most on this. We can’t afford the cuts. We don’t have the resources,” Molokai Welfare Office Supervisor Donna Mursberg said.

Mursberg said her office currently has more work to process than they have ever had during her 22 year career. According to the Hawaii Business Research Library, Molokai’s unemployment rate reached 16.3 percent in July, nearly 10 points higher than the state average of seven percent.

While the unemployment cases continue to build up, Molokai’s welfare office staff is dwindling. Mursberg’s original staff of eight employees has steadily decreased over the past few years. Positions were frozen as employees left and will not be replaced, and by November they will likely be down to three.

“They are laying off one more of the workers which will leave three plus me,” she said. “I’m retiring in October and they know that. That will leave only three people to process all the [welfare] applications. It can’t be done.”

Mursberg said that she wrote multiple letters to Department of Human Services Director Lillian Koller this summer announcing her retirement. She asked that if anyone needed to be laid off from her office that it be her since she was on her way out anyway. She never received a response.

“They should have taken the time to look where to cut instead of just making a generic decision,” Mursberg said.

A broader look
That sentiment is shared by workers across Hawaii, who are struggling to understand the choices made by the state. As it currently stands, the reduction in force will leave Lanai without a child protective services agent on the island. It will also eliminate 50 of the 99 state-wide agricultural inspectors who are responsible for keeping harmful, invasive species off the island.

Hawaii’s Chief of Media Relations Russell Pang said Governor Lingle asked all department directors to provide a list of positions that could be reduced.

“The governor asked the directors to look at the core service of each department. While a position may be very important to a group, the directors had to gauge their reduction on the core use of the department,” Pang said.

Nora Nomura, the Executive Deputy Director for The Hawaii Government Employees Association (HGEA) – Hawaii’s largest union – said she recognizes the governor’s right to abolish jobs, but said the way it was done was unfair to employees and violated collective bargaining laws. HGEA filed an official complaint with the Department of Labor’s Labor Relations Board on Aug. 12

“If you look at the lack of planning, the lack of information and the lack of access, it really looks like [the process was hurried by panic],” Nomura said. “Unfortunately, the ones that are made to suffer are the employees.”

HGEA members accounted for roughly 930 of the 1,194 workers who received layoff notices. The exact number of employees is not yet known because the list of abolished positions released on Aug. 12 was full of errors and inconsistencies, according to Nomura.

Nomura added that the state did not approach the union before making the cuts, and has not provided any further information since the list was released. These are violations of the union’s contract with the state. Nomura said that during the last reduction in force in 1995, the state provided all of the necessary information.

The Labor Relations Board has 40 days from the time the HGEA complaint was filed to schedule a  hearing, which should give the parties enough time to clear up any problems before the layoffs are scheduled to take place.

Making the Cuts
The Department of Human Services, which encompasses all social services including child protection and welfare, took the biggest hit during this round of layoffs. The list of abolished positions released on Aug. 14 put 366 Human Services jobs on the chopping block – over 30 percent of the reduction in force.

Department of Health (DOH) was the next biggest victim with 312 notices distributed. The departments of Agriculture and Accounting & General Services each had over 100. Molokai is slated to lose six DOH employees on the current list, three from Kalaupapa and three from the rest of the island. Complete numbers on an island-by-island basis will not become available before the state produces a more accurate list.

“We’ve looked everywhere [to cut the budget],” Pang said. “We’ve cut as much as possible over the past year without labor savings.”
The exact amount of money the reduction will save will not be known until all reductions are finalized on Nov. 13. Until then, senior employees with at least two years of service have the option to “bump” department employees lower on the totem pole and take over their job. Employees who received a layoff notice can request a jurisdiction-wide search for jobs that they are qualified to bump into.

The reduction in force is a reaction to the large deficit the state is expected to face through the end of the 2011 fiscal year. Pang said that the state exhausted all other options before making the reduction.

“The governor prefers furloughs rather than layoffs because there would be less impact on the public as well as on the employees,” Pang said.

HGEA and the United Public Workers (UPW) union currently have contracts that do not allow the state to furlough union members. The governor has gone to furloughs for 900 state employees that are not represented by either of the unions.

Nomura said they were not opposed to the idea of furloughs, but did not support the way the governor was planning to implement them.

“The problem with the furloughs is that she wanted to implement them unilaterally without negotiating with the union,” Nomura said. According to Nomura, the HGEA’s contract and collective bargaining laws give them the right to such negotiations and the government has allowed for them in the past.

More Trouble to Come
Gov. Lingle has already asked department directors to start identifying a second round of employees that could be cut if the need arises. Pang said that the Council in Revenues will meet again on Aug. 27 and the gap could grow once again due to lower than expected tax revenues.

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