February 27, 2011- On Friday night, the eve of a massive rally in Madison, Wisconsin, against Governor Scott Walker's union-busting "budget repair bill," a few state employees gathered for a hasty retirement party at Genna's, a downtown bar directly across from the Capitol building.
Over pitchers of beer, a group of lawyers from the state public defender's office were saying goodbye to Patrick Donnelly, longtime attorney at the agency.
Donnelly decided to retire on Wednesday-24 hours after he and his colleagues were informed by labor lawyers at the Boardman law firm that a provision in Governor Walker's bill could mean he would lose health care benefits worth tens of thousands of dollars, unless he gave notice immediately.
Two days after he made his decision, on Friday, he walked out the door for the last time. (He is taking a long-planned vacation and using furlough days to make up the rest of his two weeks' notice.)
"I'm as angry as I've ever been in my life," Donnelly said at his retirement party.
Across the state, record numbers of public employees are requesting retirement papers. Many, like Donnelly, have been advised that if they don't get out quickly, they stand to lose hundreds of thousands of dollars in benefits they were counting on for retirement.
The effect on the state could be devastating. The number of people retiring from the public sector in the next two weeks could easily dwarf the 12,000 lay-offs the governor has threatened, if Senate Democrats don't return to pass his bill ending collective bargaining for public employees.
The Wisconsin Department of Employee Trust Funds reports that, during the week of February 14-18, 2011, it received more than three times the num ber of requests for retirement estimates than it did the same week in 2010.
At the top of the Department web site is a special link for state and local employees: "Retiring on Short Notice? What Members Should Know and Do."
The volume of requests for information is so high, the web site notes, that it is having trouble keeping up with demand.