Iowa Department for the Blind announces layoffs

Director cites budget cuts, union effects, and shifting needs

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On her lunchbreak Friday, one day after learning she’s among 10 Iowa Department of the Blind employees who will be losing their job next month, Rachel Bussan said she doesn’t blame her bosses.

“They really didn’t have any choice,” Bussan, 34, of Des Moines, said, citing budget concerns and shifting priorities. “They’ve pretty much cut all the other parts of the agency that they can.”

Emily Wharton — director of the state- and federally-funded program that, among other things, provides services for the 54,000 Iowans who have experienced some degree of vision loss — confirmed the layoffs and said the justification is threefold.

First, she said, her department — like many across the state — are facing budget cuts in the current year and potentially next year. Friday evening, the state Department of Management announced $11.5 million in reductions to this year’s budget, including $24,521 from the Department for the Blind.

Secondly, and perhaps more significantly, a relatively new federal Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act mandates the department spend 15 percent of its vocational rehabilitation dollars on “transition age youth.”

That, according to an email Wharton sent staff on Thursday, “is not the kind of problem you can solve with more money.”

“We need to realign our spending,” she continued in the message. “And the majority of our spending is on personnel.”

The third driving factor behind the layoffs is the recent unionization of her department’s employees, according to Wharton. They joined AFSCME Iowa Council 61 two years ago, she said, and the union contract required every employee get a 4-percent annual raise. “That 4-percent mandatory raise no matter how a person performs in their job — they just get 4 percent, you can give them a bad evaluation and they can still get 4 percent — that has just kind of brutalized our budget,” Wharton said.

Lawmakers recently passed what critics have called a “union busting bill,” stripping the previous collective bargaining law of nearly all mandatory bargaining subjects — leaving only wages, and to a limited degree, still on the table for negotiations.

But AFSCME has filed a lawsuit, calling the new bill unconstitutional, and Wharton said she has to prepare for the possibility a judge will side with the union and issue an injunction.

“We have to kind of plan for the worst,” she said.

Should the court go the other way, Wharton said, some of the cut jobs could be restored.

“I know this is not the popular position to take,” she said. “But those mandatory raises have been just really brutal on our budget. If they don’t receive an injunction, if we are not required to give a mandatory 4 percent raise next year, that will help us out immensely, and we’ll be able to bring back more positions.”

But, she said, those positions could look different from those being cut.

A majority of the layoffs announced this week affect the department’s library, which a year ago integrated a new computer system that’s improved efficiency and eliminated the need for some manual labor and staff time.

The eliminated positions — eight library associates and two in the administration — were not providing “as much direct service to patrons,” according to Wharton.

“We’ve been kind of operating under a model that we developed in the 1960s and 1970s for quite some time, and we’re kind of dealing with some changes in technology and service models,” she said. “We really need to focus our energy as an agency on making sure blind kids have access to Braille and audio and having folks on staff who are able to deal with accessible documents.”

The department’s budget tops $9.1 million, including nearly $6 million form the federal government and nearly $3 million in state support. About two-thirds of the total budget is spent on personnel — which is why Wharton said she had to cut staff in light of new mandates and funding cuts.

“We are just trying to get ourselves into a position where we can do what we need to do in terms of the services we need to provide and make sure not caught flat-footed for 2018,” she said.

In the email Wharton sent to staff on Thursday, she advised that once the “budget situation is under control,” the department will begin creating new positions based on its new objectives — specifically those geared toward youth.

Some of those being laid off could apply for the new jobs — depending on their skill set and interest. But Bussan, who has a bachelor’s and master’s degree in library science, said, “I’m a librarian.”

“That’s what I’ve been trained to do,” she said. “That’s what my passion is.”

Bussan, who’s been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, said she struggled to find a job she liked, and this one — which she’s held for upward of seven years — seemed a perfect fit.

“I don’t blame the department for what they did, I really do like my job and I like it here,” she said. “I’m really sad that I’ve been let go, but I understand why it happened.”

Her last day is March 23, and Bussan said she hopes awareness about the layoffs prompts attention from the Legislature.

“I’m hoping that maybe if people found out about it, they’d talk to their representatives and maybe the department would get more funding so I could at least make it better for everybody else who’s still working here,” she said.

l Comments: (319) 339-3158; vanessa.miller@thegazette.com

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