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STRETCHED THIN
ERIE COUNTY EMPLOYEES WHO SURVIVED BUDGET CUTS ARE STRUGGLING WITH THE STRESS OF INCREASED WORKLOADS AND AN UNCERTAIN FUTURE

They were the lucky ones -- Erie County government workers who managed to keep their jobs in the budget crisis.

In addition to their jobs, however, many of these county employees got something else: less money, more work, survivor guilt and never-ending anxiety.

"When you work for Erie County, you always worry what tomorrow may bring," said John Davidson, 58, a 26-year veteran who works at the county auto bureau.

Until the budget crisis, Davidson had been a supervisor. Now he spends much of his time as a cashier, taking a pay cut to face endless lines of customers who have waited hours to get service in the county's lone remaining auto bureau in Cheektowaga.

"I know I'm lucky to have a job, and I was relieved at first to keep it, but I can't help thinking about all the people out of work," Davidson said. "I'm devastated that so many people I knew lost their jobs."

That only adds to the plummeting job morale and overwhelming workload, workers said.

"You do your job for 20 years and you reach a certain stature and you build relationships with the people you work with," Davidson said. "Then, one day you come into work and they're gone and you lose the position it took you years to get."

It's an emotional hit.

"I wake up in the middle of the night," said Davidson, who lives in Orchard Park. "Most of the time I have a stomach ache. I'll be at the dinner table and start talking about this and my wife will say, 'Don't worry about it, it will be all right.' But you can't help but worry."

Customers are also tense from the waiting and frustration. In March, two patrons were arrested -- one for assault at an auto bureau and one for disorderly conduct, said County Clerk David J.Swarts.

All this adds to job pressure for employees.

"I'm angry about what happened," said Karen Ortiz, another former auto bureau supervisor now working a variety of lower-paying jobs. She has been with the county for 22 years and understands employee resentment for those who didn't have to lose jobs or pay, especially the politicians.

"It's hard to stomach," said Ortiz, who lives in Buffalo. She added that working conditions are, "very strained and there's tremendous stress. Customers are constantly in your face, and you don't have time to breathe."

"They're going through a lot of feelings: fear, anger and hopelessness," Swarts said. "I try to help everybody get through this. But there's only so much you can do."

Rumors of more cuts abound. "I doubt the cuts are over, and you never know what's going to happen," Ortiz said. "Everyone wants to cling to the hope that things will be like they were before. But now we feel like we're going backwards. It's insanity."

The county Probation Department laid off one-third of its staff. That means the caseload for Julianna Bochiechio, a probation officer, has nearly doubled. During a four-hour shift on a recent weekday afternoon, she was scheduled to interview 54 people on probation.

"You can't let all this overwhelm you, or it will ruin your mental health," said Bochiechio, who lives in Amherst and has worked for the county for 15 years. "I have to try and leave the job at work and not take it home."

Her work routine and conditions have changed dramatically.

"All of a sudden, you come to work on a Monday morning and it seems like most of the people you worked with are gone. It's very depressing, and morale is terrible. You just do the best job you can."

For Bochiechio, that means a frenetic schedule of courtroom appearances, interviews with those on probation, and keeping up with their violations and travels. She also administers drug and alcohol tests in addition to checking with clients in their homes.

"I don't know if the public understands all that we have to do," Bochiechio said. "It's very discouraging for us (county workers) to be caught in the middle of all this. Erie County was a wonderful place to live and work, but you wonder if it will ever be the same."

Job stress sometimes becomes part of home life.

"You know it's bad when you go to bed at night and dream about work," said Dave Baczkowski, 55, a senior investigator for social services. "People are always on edge, and it affects their job performance."

"I'm the kind of person who goes to work and wants to get everything done," Baczkowski added. "The way things are now, with all these cuts, you can't possibly get everything done."

Baczkowski said his department, which checks for welfare fraud and tries to recover money for the county, has lost 13 people and may lose a dozen more.

"People lost jobs through no fault of their own," Baczkowski said. "These were hard-working people who spent years with the county. You just don't make up for them; there's a lot of technical detail in what we do, and you can't pick it up in a couple of weeks."

Baczkowski, like most county workers, had learned to live in the present.

"After what we've been through," he said, "you don't know what's going to happen next."

e-mail: aviolanti@buffnews.com