Not safe from layoffs in this recession: the public sector

The unemployment report on Friday showed 53,000 fewer government jobs in September.

Toby Talbot/AP/File
State workers protested in front of the governor's office in Montpelier, Vt., Sept. 18. State workers worried about the prospect of more layoffs have been at odds with the state over how best to achieve $7.4 million in labor savings.

In the two recessions prior to this one, working in the public sector pretty much guaranteed that you would avoid getting a pink slip.

But that’s not true now.

From social workers in Massachusetts to teachers aides in California, pink slips are flying as states and local municipalities try to recover from recession-depleted coffers. The worst of the cuts is in housing-bust Western states, some Rust Belt states such as Ohio, and some hard-hit Northeast states such as Maine and Rhode Island.

At the same time, the rate of hiring is falling, and unions are scrambling to try to protect their most-senior workers.

The Labor Department's Friday report on jobs in September showed that 53,000 fewer government workers were at their desks compared with August.

But government layoffs are small compared with the private sector, which shed 210,000 jobs last month. Over the past 12 months, companies have axed 5.653 million jobs.

Not too long ago, working for the government – whether federal, state, or local – guaranteed a job even during a downturn. In the recession of 1991, government employment never dropped. As for the recession of 2001, government hiring did not drop until 2004, when some 31,000 government jobs were shed.

“There was a very long lag,” says Nigel Gault, chief US economist for IHS Global Insight in Lexington, Mass. “But this is much worse than that.”

Over the past year, layoffs in the state and local arena have totaled 179,000. By way of contrast, in 2008, even though the economy was in recession, the public sector added 234,000 workers.

According to a report written in August by Donald Boyd of the Nelson Rockefeller Institute of Government in Albany, N.Y., cuts in a few states “have been quite deep – particularly Arizona, Rhode Island, New Jersey, Kentucky and Indiana.”

But California, which faced a budget deficit of $60 billion over two years, could soon surpass most of the layoffs in other states. Doug Crooks, communications director for SEIU Local 100, the largest state union, says that some 7,000 workers have already been told they are facing termination.

“We are doing everything we can to mitigate it – trying to find other jobs, get early retirements, transfers to other departments,” says Mr. Crooks.

One of the worst-hit areas in the state has been the education system. Since June of last year, the California School Employees Association, a union, estimates it has lost 10,000 jobs. “Through next year, we are projecting a loss of up to 33,000 jobs,” says Carolyn Constantino, public-relations manager for the San Jose-based union.

“Basically, we are facing thousands of layoffs in school support staff,” Ms. Constantino says. Her latest battle: The state is considering either reducing or eliminating funding for school-bus transportation since it is not mandated by the state.

Inside the schools, one of those facing the ax is Susan Gosman, an office technician at Fairfax High School in Los Angeles. Ms. Gosman, who has worked for the Los Angeles Unified School District for nine years, takes care of the clerical work such as attendance, answers the phone, and deals with children late for class.

The school district, she says, has already indicated it will enact furloughs – either four or 13 days – depending on state funding. “If it’s four days, you tighten your belt. If it’s 13 days, that would be devastating,” she says.

The school district has also said it plans to lay off 350 clerical workers in the next phase, which is supposed to begin next month. “It’s very scary and very stressful,” says Gosman. “And there is no promise there won’t be more layoffs.”


For more details on the unemployment report released Friday, click here.


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