AUGUSTA, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage has announced that state government would begin issuing layoff notices Monday before the possibility of another federal government shutdown next month, a move that Maine’s largest state employees union said would unnecessarily upset workers during the holiday season.
LePage said in a written statement Monday that layoff notices would begin to be sent Monday to 58 state employees whose jobs are federally funded or who are subject to displacement by more senior employees in their positions. At issue is the prospect of another federal government shutdown, like the 16-day shutdown in October, if Congress cannot agree on a budget deal before Jan. 15, 2014.
Politicians from both parties have been saying for days that a congressional budget committee, which included independent Maine U.S. Sen. Angus King, struck just such a deal. The House of Representatives approved the plan on Dec. 12. The Senate is expected to vote this week.
“I was opposed to the October shutdown and I am opposed to a shutdown in January,” said LePage. “But the MSEA contract is not flexible. It does not allow for late notice of layoff, even in circumstances like these, where there is a strong possibility that the notice will not be needed. The union contract does not take into account government shutdowns or any other unforeseen factors.”
Ginette Rivard, president of the Maine State Employees Association, SEIU Local 1989, called LePage’s action “unnecessary” at this time because the union contract requires 10 working days’ notice of layoffs.
“Gov. LePage could have waited for facts,” said Rivard in a written statement. “The U.S. Senate is expected to vote any day on the compromise budget. In addition, the current federal budget provides for federal funding through Jan. 15, 2014. While that’s less than a month away, in the world of politics, it’s more than enough time to pass another federal budget. … Under our union contracts, Gov. LePage is required to give state of Maine workers at least 10 workdays notice if he is going to lay them off, so there’s no need whatsoever for him to have done anything yet.”
LePage wrote in the Friday letter to potentially affected state employees that he hopes the layoffs aren’t necessary.
“I want to stress that even if the layoff notices are sent out on Monday, my office is hopeful that there will not be a shutdown in January and that the budget deal will be adopted by Congress,” he wrote. “Sadly, by the time we know for sure what Congress has done, the contractual notice deadline will have passed.”
To abide by the 10 workday layoff clause in the union contract, layoff notices would have to be sent by Dec. 30 or 31, depending on whether New Year’s Eve is considered a workday. LePage spokesman Peter Steele said LePage sent the letters Monday because of language in the union contract around “bumping rights,” which means higher-ranked employees have the right to avoid layoffs by bumping less senior employees out of certain positions.
According to the current MSEA/SEIU contract, employees who have bumping rights are required to be notified “as soon as practicable but at least five workdays before the effective date of the layoff/reassignment, or displacement” and must reply in writing within three workdays about their decisions on layoff and displacement rights.
“He could have waited,” said MSEA Executive Director Chris Quint, who said he is unaware of any other governors sending layoff notices before the Jan. 15 shutdown deadline. “To cause undue stress and uncertainty amongst employees when at this point it’s not necessary, for us that just reeks of political opportunity.”
Steele said he’s unaware of any other governors sending out layoff notices now but that it’s necessary in Maine because the governor here does not have the authority to move state funds around to cover federal salaries, as do governors in many other states.
Jon Thompson, spokesman for the Republican Governors Association, said he is also unaware of any other states where governors are taking similar actions, though that doesn’t mean measures aren’t in the works.
“Gov. LePage is right to call on representatives in Washington to avoid another shutdown and come to an agreement to keep the government open and working for the people,” wrote Thompson in response to an email. “But he is also right to prepare his state for all possible outcomes until a definitive announcement is made.”
LePage was the target of both criticism and support during the government shutdown in October for being the only governor to declare a civil emergency because of the shutdown and for laying off dozens of federally funded state employees despite assurances from the federal government that their salaries would be covered. LePage said at the time that he did not trust the federal government’s promises. He said in his Friday letter to employees that he regrets the timing.
“I understand this is a very difficult time of year to think about layoffs and I regret having to take these steps,” wrote LePage in the Friday letter. “Our thoughts are with you and your families who may be adversely affected by another federal shutdown, and I sincerely hope senators in Washington, D.C., will do what needs to be done to avoid another shutdown.”