Politics & Government

State employees brace for potential shutdown

State employees who received warnings they might be laid off next week aren’t just waiting to see if the state government partially shuts down.

They’re planning for it — either by watching their spending in June or by organizing rallies to pressure the Legislature to reach a budget deal.

While state lawmakers are working to finalize a new state budget that would avert a shutdown, state worker unions are organizing a Wednesday rally at the Capitol.

Wednesday would be the first day that many state agencies would close or reduce operations if a budget isn’t signed into law by Tuesday. An estimated 26,000 state employees are being told they could be furloughed July 1; most were notified via email earlier this week.

Tim Welch, spokesman for the Washington Federation of State Employees, said union members are “very concerned” that a partial state government shutdown will occur, even though it has never happened before in Washington. Lawmakers were able to narrowly avert a shutdown two years ago when Gov. Jay Inslee signed a new two-year budget into law on June 30, 2013.

“We don’t know what’s in the minds of 147 individual legislators,” said Welch, whose organization is Washington’s largest union of state employees. “It seems like they are close to a deal and they can get it done, and we don’t have to have layoffs. But we take it very seriously. ... We assume the worst, and hope for the best.”

In addition to helping organize the Wednesday rally, the Washington Federation of State Employees is organizing smaller demonstrations Thursday (June 25) to protest the lack of a budget deal.

State workers will wave signs during the afternoon rush-hour commute at seven overpasses throughout the state, including along South 25th Street over South Sprague Avenue in Tacoma and on Eastside Avenue above Interstate 5 in Olympia.

Some workers also are cutting back now to brace for possible loss of income in July. For Ginger Bernethy, a program coordinator at the Employment Security Department, that meant she brought a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for her lunch Wednesday.

Bernethy said she is avoiding going out to local restaurants for the rest of the month — and, if the government does partly shut down July 1, she said she might have to scale back or cancel her plans to celebrate the Fourth of July.

“I’m not buying anything that’s not a necessity right now,” Bernethy said. “And should we get laid off, I’m even going to have to revisit what is a necessity.”

Workers who are laid off temporarily wouldn’t receive pay for those days, unless the Legislature decides to compensate them retroactively.

Bernethy said she is more fearful that a government shutdown will occur this year than she was two years ago.

“I believe the legislators out there are very stubborn this year. They have, in my opinion, an unwillingness to put their pride aside to come to the table to work out a solution for everyone,” Bernethy said.

Welch, the union spokesman, said he too thinks a government shutdown is more likely this year. He pointed to the Republicans’ firmer grip on the state Senate as one reason lawmakers might struggle to reach an agreement in time. Republicans this year have resisted proposals from the Democratic-controlled state House to raise taxes, and are now negotiating with Democrats whether to find additional revenue by closing several tax exemptions.

But some think it’s just the same political gamesmanship as always, and that a shutdown scenario is extremely unlikely.

Randy Huyck, a health services consultant for the state Department of Health, said this week marked the second time in three years that he has received a warning he might be laid off temporarily if lawmakers can’t reach a budget deal.

Huyck said he is “relatively certain that (lawmakers) are going to get their work done on time.”

“Last time, I was concerned,” Huyck said. “This time, I thought, ‘Whatever – I have work to do.’ ”

On Wednesday, lawmakers from both parties expressed confidence that they’d be able to finalize a budget before Tuesday and avoid a partial government shutdown.

“We’re working in good faith to resolve the differences between the House and the Senate,” said Republican Sen. John Braun, the deputy Senate majority leader from Centralia. “We can absolutely avoid a shutdown. ... That’s still very doable.”

Rep. Reuven Carlyle, a Seattle Democrat who chairs the House Finance Committee, said negotiations are moving forward, but he declined to provide specifics.

“There are strong indications that the progress we are making is genuine,” Carlyle said. “The prospect of resolution is high.”