The rush to the exits by state workers in Wisconsin continues, causing a brain drain in every area of the state, from education to health care to social work to legal representation for the poor to the environment.
I wrote about the retirement stampede last month on the Progressive website by public defenders and other lawyers for the state. The memo that started it all came from a labor law firm advising state attorneys that if they didn't retire quickly they stood to lose hundreds of thousands of dollars in health care benefits under Scott Walker's budget repair bill, as soon as their contract expired in March. That warning also applied to many other state workers whose contract language is similar across public service sectors.
The cost: protection of citizens and public resources in many different areas.
A striking example is the Department of Natural Resources.
Lance Green, air management specialist in the Bureau of Air Management, retired suddenly last week.
As the staffer at DNR charged with regulating industries that handle ozone-depleting and global-warming chemicals, Green administered a program regulating over 1,000 industries in Wisconsin.
"There's no one assigned to take over," he said.
"It's going to mean a complete reorganization of priorities."
Governor Scott Walker sent a strong signal about what those priorities might be when he appointed the former lobbyist Pat Stevens of Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, who, when he was in charge of environmental issues for WMC, bashed the DNR for overzealous enforcement of air quality regulations. Stevens now heads Green's division, Air and Waste Management.
"I'm afraid this was part of the scheme -- to weaken regulatory authority over business," says Green.
This week, Green was back downtown, working for free, to try to keep his program alive.
"We have lost half of the people who were monitoring air pollution in the state of Wisconsin in these last few weeks," Green said. Like many state workers, the DNR employees who were close to retirement age chose to get out while they were still under contract, rather than risk losing benefits -- particularly the ability to convert unused sick time into health care premiums after retirement -- worth tens of thousands of dollars in many cases.
The president of Green's union, Wisconsin Science Professionals, advised members they should consider whether they should retire now or risk losing benefits. "He told us it was up to us, but if you stay you will lose important benefits," says Green.
And then that union president retired himself, just last week.
Gary Steffen, a forestry specialist with the DNR who is president of AFT-Wisconsin Local 3732, which represents Wisconsin Science Professionals, joined the ranks of the retired last Friday.
"I came to Wisconsin because I was proud to work for a state that cared for people and the environment," says Green who, like a lot of other DNR employees, is having trouble sleeping because he's worrying so much about the state's future. "Everybody is holding their breath or crying or escaping," he added.
"I'm working voluntarily -- just to make sure my program doesn't fall apart."
If you liked this article by Ruth Conniff, the political editor of The Progressive, check out her story "Historic Rally in Madison As 'Fab Fourteen' Come Home."
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