Inside a state worker's 'Dear Richard' letter


POSTED: Monday, August 10, 2009

The hurricane has already hit the islands.

The dreaded, anxiously-awaited layoff notices to 1,100 state workers were distributed last Tuesday.

I work for the Department of Business, Economic Development & Tourism. After being called into my division head's office at 3:30 p.m., Ted Liu, our director, handed me my “;pink slip”;—actually a letter. He told me that this was the official written notice. My position would be eliminated as of Friday, Nov. 13.

Friday the 13th? How ironic. They couldn't have picked a better date.

The letter began: “;It is with sincere regret that I must inform you that a reduction-in-force will result in the abolishment of your position ... “; and it was signed by Mr. Liu. At least, that was personal. Or was it?

Back at my desk, a friend from the Aquaculture Development Program called. He had also received a letter.

“;Does your letter begin with 'It is with sincere regret that I must inform you ...'”;?

“;Why, yes,”; he answered.

So much for the personal touch. And, of course, the governor was not the villain. The reduction-in-force was.

Our very sad staff became even sadder as three of our colleagues were called to receive their letters. Our Community-Based Economic Development Program (CBED) and the Enterprise Zones programs (EZ) would be terminated.

Unlike our Film Office, which has also been pegged for elimination and which has brought in over $100 million, CBED and EZ work quietly in areas with high unemployment rates. Like the Leeward Coast and Molokai, where, over the years, they've assisted businesses in communities with large Hawaiian populations. Certainly, the folks there have felt the pain of the recession, perhaps more than other residents.

But wait! All I had to do was to fill out an “;online Reduction-in-Force (RIF) Application”; and I could blast some poor soul with less seniority out of his or her livelihood. Deadline: Aug. 18.

Departmental jobs would be considered, then they would search the state. If that wasn't successful, “;discharge will take place.”;

Meanwhile, we're wondering whatever happened to the union that was supposed to fight for us. After two weeks of being MIA at the bargaining table, the Hawaii Government Employees Association held an informational meeting in response to the layoff notices and was faced with a barrage of questions. The message was basically, “;Fill out the form and prepare for the worst.”;

But the next day, it reversed this and told members not to fill in the form. So, whom should we listen to? The governor, or the union? Failure to complete the form could mean loss of bumping rights.

The unions will present their final proposal to an arbitrator today. But he won't be making his decision until December. So those of us on the list are most certainly out of here, or into bumping. Why didn't they act earlier?

And what if there are more dire forecasts (as anticipated)? This will undoubtedly cause another 1,100 layoffs—or more. Given this scenario, administrators can't predict which employees and which programs are going to remain over the next few months.

We're already getting calls from worried clients asking if services will continue. If our grant proposals are successful, who's going to manage them? If a company needs to contact us to receive certain tax benefits or permits, who's going to help them?

Needless to say, the process is taking a heavy toll on employees.

Yoshiko, the keeper of our snack shop, told me: “;People who come in here are so scared, they can't eat.”;

One DBEDT employee on the list hasn't found anyone he can bump.

“;Who's going to hire a 57-year-old guy?”; he asked me.

Another employee—also listed—pays the mortgage on a house in Kapalama where his aged parents live. He doesn't know what he's going to do.

Aquaculture development manager Todd Low will lose six of eight employees and probably won't have a program to supervise. Half the staff at the state's Plant Quarantine Division will be gone. Remember them? They check for snakes and other critters in overseas containers. Is this how to protect our fragile environment?

So, government and its workers are slowly being strangled by this catastrophe. Our administrators can't plan ahead. Our employees are facing the terrible possibility that they are going to lose their jobs.

And nobody seems to be asking the most critical questions: Will these layoffs—and probably more—really solve our fiscal problem? And, more importantly: Could these layoffs make our fiscal problem worse?

Taking a sledgehammer to one of the pillars of Hawaii's economy—state government—could have disastrous effects. Programs that could help turn our economy around will be wiped out. Many essential services will be drastically curtailed. What about the slew of lawsuits that could be filed when state programs cannot fulfill their legislative mandates? And, who knows, what else?

We're headed for Friday the 13th of November, and the start of the holiday season. This is not going to be a Merry Christmas for Hawaii.


C. Richard Fassler is an economic development specialist for the state Department of Business, Economic Development & Tourism.