ELKHART — There was plenty of head-shaking, anger and disbelief. Tears even.
Gathered Friday, March 21, in a backroom at an Elkhart restaurant, the Elkhart County Highway Department drivers — ex-drivers, now — were trying to process what had happened. Three hours before, 10 of them had been let go, laid off, canned. They got little by way of explanation.
"Today was totally a shock for me," said Jessica Miller, her eyes welling with tears.
Others on hand wondered why. What had they done wrong that led to them being let go?
"They wouldn't give us a reason," said one of the other impacted workers, who didn't want to be identified, worried about losing his severance package. "We asked, 'Why us?'"
Turns out the 10 lost their jobs not because of poor performance, but because of budget woes. Elkhart County government has been hit hard by the loss of revenue due to property tax caps, and the Elkhart County Highway Department, in particular, has suffered. It came to a head Friday when the drivers — the workers who plow snow, fix potholes and repair roads — were called in for a meeting, receiving word of their fate.
The highway department needs to make do with less, Elkhart County Commissioner Frank Lucchese later explained in a phone interview, and the 10 workers were the unfortunate casualty.
"We understand we're putting them in a hard spot and we're trying to be as fair as possible," said Lucchese, referring to the severance package the workers will get. "It wasn't performance. This was just budget."
The county has eliminated jobs by attrition due to money woes — leaving posts indefinitely vacant when someone retires, quits or moves on. But Friday's action was easily the biggest single instance of letting workers go since the county started experience budget problems in the late 2000s, as the Great Recession took hold.
DO MORE WITH LESS
Here are some of the nuts and bolts of the thing.
Ten workers, called drivers, were released from their jobs at the Elkhart County Highway Department Friday. According to Carol Caviness, director of the Elkhart County Department of Human Resources, the departures are not considered layoffs, but "permanent separations."
"In this case it was due to a reorganization that was necessary by the reduction in income," she said. Their duties included "plowing snow, patching roads, whatever was necessary."
With 10 fewer drivers, the department will save a minimum of $400,000 in a year, Caviness said.
Twenty-five drivers remain, and the department is working to ensure there's no reduction in the level of service. "Their goal is to work smarter and get more done with less,” she said.
Lucchese said the job-cut plan was drawn up by officials in the highway department, managed by Jeff Taylor.
Terry Rodino, president of the Elkhart County Board of Commissioners, confirmed that the decision was budget-related. "We’ve got a limited amount of dollars to run that department, and we’re trying to do the best we can," Rodino said.
'THEY JUST SAID GO'
All that was of little consolation to the 10 employees, seven of them gathered at Granma's House of Pancakes in the Dunlap area.
There was an inkling before the Friday morning meeting, called for all 35 or so drivers in the department, that jobs were potentially on the line. Employees were instructed to clear highway department vehicles of their belongings beforehand, those at Granma's said.
At the meeting, held at the highway department headquarters in Goshen, 10 names were called. Those identified were instructed to go to another adjacent room. There, three Elkhart County Sheriff''s Department deputies were on hand to keep order, and that's when a supervisor relayed the bad news: Your services are no longer needed.
At Granma's, the main question was simple. Why?
The supervisor "wouldn't answer anything," said one of the men. "All we wanted was a reason, and they wouldn't give one to us. They wouldn't talk, they just said go."
Another former employee at Granma's said the workers let go have solid records. "None of us have been wrote up. We have good reviews," he said.
There was plenty of grumbling about what the let-go workers see as the declining state of affairs in the highway department. There was also a sense of being wronged.
It's been a hard winter, with a lot of snow and long, long hours of plowing for the drivers. "And this is what we get," said one.
Jessica Miller, the lone female among the released workers, said they were on-call at seemingly all hours when the snow fell, coming in as needed, sometimes as early as 3:30 a.m.
"There were days we where there until 8:30 (p.m.) ... It was like 16-, 17-hour days," Miller said. "It starts messing with you mentally."
All told, the department meeting lasted perhaps 15 minutes. The gathering at Granma's that followed lingered on at least until around lunchtime.
It may not get any better for county government coffers in the near term, warned Lucchese, the county commissioner. He said the county may have a shortfall of perhaps $2 million to deal with when putting the 2015 budget together later this year.
"We've cut everywhere we can cut. We're going to have a deficit this year," he said.
As for the workers now without work, they'll manage, somehow.
"I'm going to go find another job," Miller said.
Jim Hinken was at Granma's, commiserating with the axed workers. He used to work as a mechanic for the Elkhart County Highway Department until being let go on Feb. 21, after the county decided to outsource most vehicle maintenance duties. That was another cost-cutting measure.
"I've put out several applications," he said. So far, no bites.
On the bright side, Elkhart County Commissioner Mike Yoder noted that the economy seems to be on the rebound, with jobs to be had.
"These are good employees. I don't think they'll have any problem finding work elsewhere," he said.