IDOT workers united in opposing move to southern Illinois

Ryan Keith

Amanda Abeln and co-workers give Gov. Rod Blagojevich a little credit amongst the chaos prompted by moving their traffic safety division from Springfield to southern Illinois.

They’re fired up, determined to fight hard to stay here.

“He united every single traffic safety employee in that building,” Abeln said Thursday at a news conference at their downtown Springfield union headquarters. “We all have the same intentions, we have the same drive. Everybody is willing to put in something or everything to help with this.”

Workers will get a chance to show that unity for state lawmakers Thursday at a 5 p.m. hearing at the state Capitol. Members of the Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability will take hours of testimony from employees, lawmakers, Illinois Department of Transportation officials and others about the pros and cons of the move.

Blagojevich’s administration first announced the move in the spring. The governor picked Harrisburg, in far southeastern Illinois, as the new home for the division, aiming to bring about 100 traffic safety jobs and millions of dollars in economic benefit to the area.

Cathy McGill said workers have a strong case to make for why Blagojevich is misguided.

“It’s unbelievable what will be affected by this move,” McGill said at American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Council 31 headquarters.

There’s an emotional and financial toll. Some workers say they’ll have to decide between staying employed or leaving behind family and friends who cannot relocate with them.

McGill, who has been with IDOT for 38 years, isn’t ready to call it quits or leave the area.

“Why would I retire if I love my job, I love my co-workers? Retirement’s not in my budget. I’m too young. I want my job,” McGill said.

For office clerk Trevor Halfacre, who is disabled and in a wheelchair, moving would mean leaving behind important medical treatment and the staff who help him do his job now, along with a 12-year-old daughter.

“He loses everything. He has to start completely over,” said Sandra Williams, who helps Halfacre with his job duties.

There’s also upheaval caused by putting new people in unfamiliar positions.

Abeln said traffic safety employees have worked hard in recent years to virtually eliminate a long backlog of traffic crash reports waiting to be finalized. If employees are moved hours away, or new hires are made in Harrisburg, a smooth-running operation will be disrupted and that will mean delays for drivers, lawyers and insurers, she said.

The governor insisted in an interview with The State Journal-Register two weeks ago that employees who didn’t want to leave the Springfield area wouldn’t have to, as the administration would find them similar jobs in other agencies.

“Nothing will change in terms of their quality of life, their income and their benefits or their commute to work, to varying degrees,” Blagojevich said then.

Blagojevich spokesman Brian Williamsen said Thursday that those details are still being worked on, and specifics could not be discussed.

“We are working with the employees who choose to move, to make this a smooth transition,” Williamsen said in a statement. “We have no doubt the Division of Traffic Safety will continue performing its exemplary work from the new location in Harrisburg.”

Employees said they’ve heard nothing about getting other jobs and don’t know whether those offers are coming or would be worth pursuing.

“The governor says a lot of things … but we don’t have that in writing,” Halfacre said.

Lawmakers will make a recommendation to the governor about the move sometime after Thursday’s hearing. Blagojevich has made it clear he intends to proceed regardless, but workers hope legislative pressure will change his mind.

If not, they’ll consider all options — which could mean legal action to block the move.

“We have an aggressive strategy to make sure that common sense and what’s right prevails,” said Erik Hostetter, AFSCME Council 31 staff representative.

Ryan Keith can be reached at (217) 788-1518.