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Roger Madsen, Idaho Department of Labor director since 1995, retires

Sun., Nov. 17, 2013

Outgoing Idaho Department of Labor Director Roger Madsen hugs former employee Winona Johnson, during a gathering with employees, family and associates Nov. 15 in Boise. (Associated Press)
Outgoing Idaho Department of Labor Director Roger Madsen hugs former employee Winona Johnson, during a gathering with employees, family and associates Nov. 15 in Boise. (Associated Press)

BOISE – It took Roger Madsen most of this month to clean out his office in downtown Boise. He had to dig through 19 years of papers, like a one-page chart he updated regularly, labeled “The Best of Times and the Worst of Times.”

Madsen retired Friday from the job he took in 1995 – director of the Idaho Department of Labor – to do humanitarian work in Morocco with his wife, Leslie.

He leaves an agency that has often been tapped to adopt or foster various organizations that needed a permanent or temporary home. The agency houses the Idaho Commission on Human Rights, the Idaho Career Information System, a volunteerism commission called Serve Idaho and other programs. It has twice taken in the Idaho Commission on the Arts.

He leaves behind a multimillion-dollar surplus where once there was a projected $4 million deficit.

Madsen served two terms in the Legislature from Ada County. He defeated Jim Risch, now a U.S. senator representing Idaho, in one Republican primary election.

Madsen introduced a controversial anti-abortion bill in his first term, and he was beaten in his re-election bid. He ran again later, regained the seat, and was appointed by Gov. Phil Batt in 1995 to the Labor job.

The department’s budget was in bad shape, he said. “We decided we would cut travel, reduce equipment (and other capital spending), cut staff – which is unfortunate – consolidate, and we were out of the deficit … in three months,” he said in an interview. “Our employees should feel comforted to know, and I’ve been telling them, that I don’t see any danger of furloughs or office closures or reduction of pay.”

And his successor, Twin Falls businessman Ken Edmunds, will inherit a book that symbolizes how Madsen led the department. The book holds individual profiles of the department’s 600-plus employees. Madsen used to study it, at work and at home, to understand the goals, skills and even the complaints of each person in his agency. He also made time for one-on-one meetings with all of those employees.

Madsen also leaves behind someone whose career started as a customer of the department. In 1972, John McAllister was an Army veteran who had studied zoology and accounting. He walked into the department’s Caldwell office hoping to find work.

“They handed me (a Labor Department staff) job announcement and said, ‘Well, why don’t you try this?’ ” he recalls. “So I did, and the rest is history.”

McAllister rose in the ranks from accounting technician to chief deputy director.

“I can say, unequivocally, Roger was the best director we ever had,” he said. Madsen “let us attempt big improvements,” such as a $7 million, five-year modernization of the unemployment insurance system.

“He doesn’t micromanage,” McAllister said. “He’s just a really good manager in terms of recognizing people’s skills.”

Recession and recovery

The recession was tough on the agency, Madsen said.

During his first 13 years on the job, the department paid about $100 million a year to claimants, he said. During the recession, it shot up to $642 million.

The claims and payments took manpower to process, so Labor employees had to put in overtime, he said.

Meanwhile, demand for services was high, as the state’s boom-years average of 19,000 unemployed Idahoans surged to 67,000. Jobs in construction, wood products, agriculture, mining and other industries disappeared.

For every job opening, the state had five unemployed people seeking work. Often, those people would be neighbors and friends of the department’s workers.

“I’m so proud of our employees for handling that,” Madsen says.

The economic recovery brings a new set of challenges. Now, payments authorized by the department are just shy of $200 million, and there are about two jobs for every unemployed person, Madsen said. And with companies hiring again, the department’s turnover rate has risen from about 8 percent to 11 or 12 percent, Madsen said.

“Our employees are highly skilled, especially in IT, and they’re in big demand, and so we’ve lost great people to the private sector,” he said, adding that he’s tried to keep people on staff by offering competitive wages, bonuses and new opportunities.

Future of service

Madsen and his wife always wanted to devote themselves to serving others, wherever their church sends them. Now in their mid-60s, with five children and 19 grandchildren in other states, it was time.

They leave in mid-December for Morocco to be, as far as they know, only the second pair of full-time humanitarian workers in the country affiliated with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. (The first pair was Madsen’s brother and sister-in-law, whom the Madsens will replace.)

They will stay in Morocco until the summer of 2015, helping to distribute wheelchairs and arranging medical services and training. Proselytizing is forbidden in Morocco, so it will be a service mission only.

“I look forward to living simpler, just living day-to-day,” Leslie said.

What happens after that?

The Madsens will “come home and go out again” to do mission after mission, Roger Madsen said. “Until we can’t walk. Then we’ll do one local.”

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