Courthouse sees layoffs

BY SCOTT RAYNOR | JULY 06, 2009 7:20 AM

Debbie Foster and her closest coworkers gathered at lunch amid rumors of layoffs. Their seniority — low as their spirits — didn’t allow them any security. If anyone was fired, it would be them.

Foster — who has been a court reporter for more than two decades — is on a 20-day paid administrative leave, and she will be officially terminated July 23. She is one of a 13 court reporters statewide to be laid off because of an increasingly limited Iowa judiciary budget, which is attempting to cut more than $5.4 million for fiscal 2010.

With a total budget of roughly $152 million in fiscal 2009, nearly all of the cuts will come from workforce reduction.

Returning to a silent and somber lunch on June 25, Foster realized she was one of the two 6th District court reporters to be laid off. She said she knew by the look in her judge’s eyes.

“We were pretty sure it was going to be one or two or all of us,” said Foster’s former coworker, Julie Green. “We were pretty sure someone was going to be cut that day.”

Also included in the cuts is the elimination of around 50 currently vacant positions, which 6th District court administrator Carroll Edmondson said make the courthouse harder to operate.

“Even before we cut the court reporters, we needed more,” Edmondson said. “We’re struggling to redecide how we provide support to the judges.”

All district judges are required by Iowa law to have a court reporter, while Iowa Code says district associate judges may appoint a court reporter.

Though only two court reporters from the 6th Judicial District have been laid off, Green said it has already impacted the work atmosphere.

“It is unorganized, we are just trying to figure out a new system. Every day we are figuring out new problems,” Green said.

Foster said she will return to freelance court reporting. She loves the work and said she can’t see herself doing anything else.

“You are not always carrying the same stories,” she said. “It is interesting.”

Foster said budget cuts and immediate unemployment weren’t the only threat to her job, however.

Since December, Iowa has been testing and considering the use of digital recorders, which could replace court reporters altogether.

But Foster isn’t convinced that digital recording is the way to go. She said other states who have adopted digital recording — such as Alaska — often go back to using court reporters. Human interaction in the courtroom cannot be replaced, she said. Court reporters take the role of judges’ secretaries and can ask people to rephrase or repeat themselves.

For now, Foster is preparing for the long fight ahead. As a single mother with a mortgage, she said she’ll miss the health-care and insurance benefits from her former job.

“Right now I don’t have a daily routine. I stay positive, I tell myself it is a month vacation,” she said.

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