State employees across southern New Jersey protested proposed state cuts to benefits and funding outlined earlier this week by Gov. Chris Christie.
About two dozen employees of the Vineland Developmental Center stood in front of the Landis Avenue facility holding protest signs targeting Gov. Chris Christie and prompting drivers to honk the horns of their vehicles in support. The Communications Workers of America union organized similar protests in Atlantic City and Woodbine.
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In Vineland, workers said they were not as concerned about the consolidation of the facility’s two branches, which some have expected for some time. Rather, they were bothered by negative effects to the way they make a living, pointing to a package of three bills moving through the Legislature that could result in more forced concessions by state employees on benefits and pensions.
Among the changes affecting many public employees are caps on the amount of sick time that can be cashed in upon retirement and the amount of vacation time that can be rolled over year to year, as well as required contributions to health benefits equal to 1.5 percent of their paychecks.
Mary Potter, a married mother of four who makes about $54,000 annually managing a cottage housing developmentally disabled people at the facility, said she missed a car payment in February due in part to furlough time that she and her husband, another state employee, have already had to take.
“Sometimes you can’t even sleep at night,” said Potter, who lives in Millville. “You wonder what is Christie going to take. I don’t know what kind of life he’s had, how he got to be where he is. But I worked for mine, and I don’t think he should come in and jeopardize that.”
In Atlantic City, a few dozen CWA workers marched in circles in front of the state office building on Atlantic Avenue during their lunch break.
Amy Palm, a vice president on the CWA executive board, said the governor’s budget cuts will not solve the state’s financial problems and could hinder the group’s contract negotiations scheduled for next year.
“But we’re not out here only because of the effect it will have on us; we’re out here for all the working people of the state. There should be no layoffs at all,” Palm said. “We need to keep New Jersey working. Cutting jobs would take money out of the economy, because the first place people go when they get laid off are the unemployment lines.”
Stanley Higgs, the CWA’s president in Woodbine, works in the psychology department of the Woodbine Developmental Center. He said he worries that state budget cuts would take some funding from the center as well as cut pensions to workers. The state center for developmentally disabled boys and men fills a similar function as the Vineland Developmental Center and is one of Cape May County’s biggest employers.
“They underfunded it,” Higgs said of the state pension fund as he stood near Route 550, where protesters solicited honks of support from passing vehicles. “They took the money, but they didn’t put it in.”
Christian Redd, an adoption specialist for the state Division of Youth and Family Services, is worried about who will bear the biggest burden of the budget cuts.
“Essentially, Christie’s budget is going to hurt working-class people, middle-class families,” said Redd, 33, of Egg Harbor Township. “And it could very easily be their children who are hurt the most.”
Port Republic resident Doreen Gilroy was also circling in front of the state office building hoisting an anti-Christie sign, but she said it was a “pain in the butt” to have to do so.
“With all state agencies, there are good stuff and bad stuff,” said Gilroy, 53. “But 99 percent of the people I work with take pride in their work and definitely give more than they get.”
Gerry Gartland, who has worked at the Vineland Developmental Center for more than 31 years, said he thinks members of his union have made sacrifices that other state employees and those in the state pension system should make as well. He said he has taken 10 furlough days, puts 1.5 percent of his paycheck toward health benefits and has given other concessions, as have others in his union.
“If Christie really wants to start somewhere, he should start with the authorities, committees and boards,” Gartland said. “All these people who are making $7,500 for two hours of work and getting pensions.”
Messages left with the governor’s press office were not returned.
Staff writers Rob Spahr and Brian Ianieri contributed to this story.
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