Knowledgeable, Experienced Workforce a Casualty of Walker's War
As a result of the recent unprecedented attacks on Wisconsin public employees, thousands of workers will be taking early retirement in the coming months. And, as they walk out the door, they will be taking with them years of experience and knowledge in the service of the people of Wisconsin.
Jean will be retiring this month, earlier that she expected, after 33 years with the UW. “I feel that I can’t trust the government or the Administration to look out for my interests,” she says.
“They’ll have to fill my job. But anyone coming in off the street just won’t have the knowledge I have.” Jean is the manager of a large UW building, which recently went through a major renovation. She knows what still needs to get done and who can do it. And, she’ll take that knowledge with her when she leaves.
The Wisconsin Department of Employee Trust Funds (ETF) manages the retirement system and provides information to state, county and municipal employees and teachers who are contemplating retiring. According to ETF spokesman Matt Stohr, they are getting more than three times the number of requests for retirement information over the same time last year. According to the Capital Times, there were 3,462 such requests in the first two months of 2010 and 5,866 requests in the same period this year.
Phil also took early retirement from his research job at the Department of Children and Families. “The day that I left, three other employees in my general work area also retired. We all retired prior to when we had planned to retire. This amounted to about 130 years of institutional knowledge walking out the door,” he says.
One concern employees have is that the Governor’s plan for yet another wage freeze and dramatically increased out of pocket expenses paid by employees would result in a substantial cut in take-home pay. “With all the cuts,” says Jean, “it will cost me $700 a month if I stay.”
Then there is talk about cutting back in post-retirement health care coverage. Many employees believe that, if they wait, they will lose the ability to use unused sick leave to help pay for health insurance after they retire.
Rick took early retirement from his job with the UW Grounds Department. He was a jack of all trades, who could be called on to do snow removal, install traffic signs, maintain fences, patch potholes, trim trees, set up recycling stations, repair sidewalks, plant grass...all the skills you learn in 33 years on the job.
The work was often exhausting, but he seems to miss it. “It was kind of cool when somebody, like some students, would recognize that you just did a good job cleaning the snow off the steps and say ‘thanks,’” Rick says.
“But, I saw what was coming down and decided to get out while the gettin’s good.”
There is also the widespread concern that the Walker Administration is politicizing government policies to the point that civil servants will no longer be a part of agency decision-making. One part of the Governor’s “Budget Repair Bill” would replace a number of civil service positions with people appointed by him.
The concern that the new Governor will interfere with agency decisions and politicize policy-making is perhaps most evident in the Department of Natural Resources (DNR). Walker’s choice of an archconservative opponent of state conservation policies to head the DNR caused a number of seasoned veterans of that agency to retire.
Carol, a 56 year old water supply specialist with the DNR, took early retirement in December, shortly after Walker announced his cabinet appointments. She told the Wisconsin State Journal that she was leaving a job she loves because of the “tenor of discussions with the incoming administration” and concern that her agency won’t have the support of the new Governor.
“I do public safety,” she said. “It’s not something that we should have to fight to do.”
Marty worked for 33 years as a food inspector for the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection. One of his many duties was to ensure that vendors at farmers markets followed good food safety practices. His last day was February 25.
“There’s so much to this job that you just learn from experience. You just have to know what to look for,” says Marty. “This stuff isn’t written down.”
And, while he says he’ll miss the work, he won’t miss being scapegoated by the politicians. “I owe it to myself and my family to get out while the benefits I worked for are still intact.”
On his last day, Phil learned that three more managers in his division, all with over 30 years of experience, had just announced they were retiring early. And another office announced that it was canceling a long-planned training conference because key presenters and organizers were retiring early. “These are just the ones I hear about, where I work,” he says. “So it’s just the tip of the iceberg.”
Another not to be overlooked loss to the people of Wisconsin is the fact that a lot of those who are retiring early are experienced union activists. Phil, for example, was an active steward and served on his union’s bargaining team. Marty was the longtime president of AFSCME Local 333 and delegate to the South Central Federation of Labor.