This story is a collaboration between StateImpact Idaho and Northwest News Network. Contributing reporters are Emilie Ritter Saunders, Chris Lehman and Austin Jenkins.
Across the Northwest, government agencies and schools have laid off thousands of workers. Just like corporate downsizing, those public sector job losses have a human and an economic impact.
The health and welfare office in Boise was unusually quiet on a recent Tuesday morning, thanks to the first major snowstorm of the year. Only a handful of people waited in line to sign up for food stamps, Medicaid or other programs. This office typically sees 100 people a day.
Sandy Brown is one of the first faces you see when you walk into the Boise office. She helps people through the process of getting welfare benefits. Despite an increasing workload and regular required overtime, Brown loves her job. “We get to help people”, she says. It’s the attitude of gratitude. I have a job, thank you Jesus, I have a job I get to go to every day.”
It’s a sentiment that hits home for Brown considering more than 300 people have been laid off from the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare over the last five years. The department’s Director Richard Armstrong recently told Idaho lawmakers who are charged with crafting the state’s budget his department can’t handle any more cuts. “Because any further reductions would have a much greater impact for participants, providers and services,” Armstrong said.
In fact, Armstrong says he has a hard time keeping his current employees because of stress, increased workload and better pay in the private sector. This comes at a time when Idaho is dealing with a record number of people signing up for food stamps, enrollment has more than tripled in four years. That means employees at the Boise welfare office are stretched thin. Program manager Kim Lafferty says this hasn’t meant a slowdown in getting benefits to those who need them. Still, he says more staff would help in the short term. “But long-term, the best thing that could happen is the economy would pick up, people go back to work, and then our caseload decreases,” Lafferty says.
Idaho’s Department of Health and Welfare has shouldered the biggest share of state government employee layoffs in the last five years. The state has laid off 928 people since 2007. That figure doesn’t include public school teachers.
State Budget Cuts Hurt Oregon Teaching Jobs
According to the Oregon Employment Department, there are nearly 10,000 fewer school district employees than there were just three years ago. One teacher who got a pink slip was Ehren Schneider. He was laid off from his language arts position at Centennial High School in Gresham.
“Well it was shocking,” Schneider says. “And as a grown man, I have to say at one point I was almost fighting back tears. I love teaching. Teaching is a passion of mine.” Schneider has been able to substitute teach some and his wife has a full-time job. Still, “it’s a dramatic cutback in everything we do, because there isn’t the same amount of money coming in per month.”
Losing education jobs means larger class sizes. But Willamette University economics professor Jerry Gray says those laid-off teachers aren’t spending as much money in their local communities. “You pay somebody $40,000 annually, and they’re going spend a big portion of that,” Gray says. “And that spending might create demand for other sorts of goods and services in the economy.”
But Gray has this caveat: public sector jobs are paid for with taxes that come out of someone else’s pocket. So he says there’s no net addition to the Oregon economy. “though the distribution of that income is different,” Gray says.
In other words, employed public workers may spend part of their paycheck in ways that creates other jobs. But he says that’s only true if the people who paid the taxes that go into a public employee’s paycheck would have hung onto the money instead of spending it themselves.
Washington Lawmakers Still in Cost-Cutting Mode
In the last two months there are signs government is hiring again. One person who exemplifies this is state employee Keri-Anne Jetzer. Her low point came last year just before her lay-off took effect. She came home and opened the mail to find a rejection letter from another agency. “I cried. I cried a lot,” says Jetzer. “Part of it was because I was scared. Part of it was, do my skills and abilities…is there any market for them?”
Jetzer was a researcher for Washington’s Sentencing Guidelines Commission. She lost her job when that standalone agency was consolidated. Of course, she worried about paying her mortgage. But she says the blow was more than just a financial one. “I know that it wasn’t personal, but it’s hard not to take it personally and feel perhaps a little sense of failure,” Jetzer says.
Washington has shed roughly 17,000 public sector jobs, half of which are state government positions. Dave Wallace is acting chief economist with Washington’s Employment Security Department. He says most of these job losses actually came after the Great Recession officially ended. “There’s a different cycle to it. It’s almost a delayed effect,” Wallace says. It’s only been in the past year that Washington has lost more government jobs than any other sector.
As for Keri-Anne Jetzer, she went on unemployment and spent her days looking for work. Jetzer has a Master’s degree, but it got to the point where was she ready to take a service job to wait out the bad economy. And then fate intervened. She landed a state government job with a different agency. “I feel fantastic, I feel productive again,” Jetzer says. “I feel I have a purpose in the world.”
Jetzer knows a lot of taxpayers want the state to continue to downsize and some may not like to hear Washington hired back a non-front line employee like her. But she feels her research into criminal justice issues helps policy makers make data driven decisions that ultimately save taxpayers money.