Laid-off state worker struggles with unemployment

02/10/09 7:49AM By John Dillon
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(Host) State workers are among those who have been hit by the recession. Faced with a potential $200 million dollar state budget deficit, Governor Jim Douglas wants to lay off 660 people.

But some were let go even before the governor announced the latest round of state job cuts.

VPR's John Dillon has this report on a state worker who was told right before Christmas that she'd lose her job.

(Phone) "Welcome to Vermont's unemployment insurance claim center. You have reached our claim line for the processing of a new  claim, or to re-open a claim."

(Dillon) Reenie De Geus worked for the Agriculture Agency for 21 years. She's an economist and served as the agency's chief of research.

(Dillon) Last week, De Geus was on hold with the Department of Labor. She heard lots of canned music as she waited to file an unemployment claim.

(Phone) "Once connected to a customer service representative, you'll be asked questions about your employment history."

(Dillon) In her two decades with the state, De Geus served under five agriculture commissioners or secretaries. Right before Christmas, De Geus was summoned to a meeting with her latest boss, Secretary Roger Allbee and his two deputies. They told her that her job was being eliminated.

(DeGeus) ``Normally they can't get rid of you unless they go through a process. But if they eliminate your position they can just tell you, boom, you're done.''

(Dillon) As chief of research, De Geus has studied the state's agriculture economy. She provided data and analysis, for example, to the Northeast Dairy Compact and the Vermont Milk Commission.

The numbers she's crunching now have to do with her household budget, and what her family can afford.

(De  Geus) ``It's a big adjustment to lose my career, basically my pension, my livelihood. I have four children to support.''

(Dillon) De Geus's husband also works for the state, and his job is still funded. But the family still faces hard choices. They've asked their oldest child to look at transferring from an out-of-state college to a Vermont school in order to save money on tuition.

(De Geus) "My next daughter is applying to colleges, and we've made her apply to some schools other than her first choices to try to improve the financial aid packages she might get. We'll have to see how things shake out, whether she'll need to just stay home and go to CCV or whether she can go to these other schools she's looking at."

(Dillon) De Geus says she'll put in a big garden this spring. She tries to limit trips into town to save money. She says the family already keeps a close eye on expenses.

(DeGeus) "We don't go out to dinner. We don't take vacations. We don't go places; we don't spend a lot of money on anything. We're cutting out anything that's extra. We try to live conservatively, so we're not in as bad a shape as a lot of people. We don't have debt at this point."

(Dillon) As an agricultural economist with a graduate degree, DeGeus works in a very specialized field. But she hopes to find similar work as the federal stimulus money percolates down to the state.

(De Geus) "I can collect unemployment for 26 weeks, plus whatever the extensions are. Under unemployment, I can earn up to a third of that income without being penalized for it. So I expect to be soon looking for a job, washing dishes or whatever, to supplement my income right there while I'm looking for a job."

(Phone)  "Your call is important, so please stay on the line for the next available agent."

(Dillon) De Geus has learned from a friend in state government that the phone lines at the unemployment office are really jammed on Monday. So she's waited until the end of the week to file a claim.

Finally, a real person answers, and she files her claim.

(Unemployment worker): ``When did you start working for them?''

De Geus: ``January 11, 1988.''

Worker: ``And your last day of work was when?''

De Geus: ``January 30, 2009.''

(Dillon) De Geus is soft-spoken and chooses her words carefully. You get the impression she's more comfortable analyzing economic data than talking about herself. She says the state needs to consider raising taxes to balance the budget, instead of laying off workers.

(De Geus) ``People are an asset. People aren't a cost. As a public employee I've always been proud to work for the people of Vermont. I don't view myself as a burden on the people of Vermont.

(Dillon) And as an economist, De Geus is curious just how much the state will save by letting her go. She points out that the state still needs to spend money to cover her unemployment benefits.

For VPR News, I'm John Dillon in Montpelier.

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