The Day The Shutdown Ended: Six Federal Workers Describe the Impact of 35 Days Without Pay

Federal employees are finally back at work.

Passing a three week temporary spending bill, the government may still shut down again on February 15th, but for now, it’s over.

To end the 35 day government shutdown, some credited sick outs by air traffic controllers that led to cancelled flights across the eastern seaboard; others thought the mass absence of IRS workers, who refused to work without pay processing tax returns, led to the crisis that finally got the White House to cave. The determined resolve of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi certainly played a part, as well as the general unpopularity of Trump’s border wall blackmail.

One thing is for sure. If the shutdown lasted through the next weekend, another payday with no check, hundreds of thousands would have lost their family vision and dental insurance; perhaps even their health insurance. Thousands of federal workers, along with the millions of veterans, elderly, and disabled dependent on federal rental assistance would be at risk of eviction.

Below are the stories, in their own words, of six leaders of the American Federation of Government Employees union who had been working without pay, or furloughed, since before Christmas. Step into their shoes. Feel what it was like, in the 24 hours before the shutdown ended, to be torn between a duty to serve the public, and to the survival of one’s own family.

For these six workers in the frigid Midwest, the nation’s arid southern border seemed a world away. They just wanted to get back to work, to pay their bills, and to serve their country.

Stephanie Perkins

Equal Employment Opportunity Commission

January 24, 2019

Stephanie Perkins is a federal mediator for the equal employment opportunity commission, and president of AFGE Local 3504, representing EEOC workers in Illinois, Minnesota, Indiana, Ohio, and Michigan, and is 2nd vice president to the national council of the EEOC employees.  When I spoke with her EEOC union members were in panic mode. She had just got off the phone with members in Ohio, distraught now that Republican Governor Mike DeWine had blocked furloughed staff from receiving unemployment insurance. 

“It is baffling why we are the ones suffering.  We have nothing to do with the budget process.  We just go to work everyday and try to do our jobs.  The question is why?  What did we do?  Why is this happening to us?”

“Do they not understand we are people?  Ms. Perkins is responsible for a union local of approximately 200 workers and their families, “We are all on furlough.  Management still has to go into work, but they are also not getting paid.”

“The EEOC investigates reports of employee discrimination.  Management is taking care of basic statutory obligations – to make sure that complaints can be recorded within required timelines, but they are just sitting on a desk, and won’t be investigated until we go back to work.”

“We already have chronic staffing shortages that delay the completion of investigations that lead to employment discrimination settlements, with justice and restitutions for employment discrimination case in the private sector.  We’ve been closed for months if we reopen our backlog will have exponentially increased.  Justice delayed is justice denied.”

“In the Detroit office which includes the Indianapolis division, there are 2000 cases waiting to be investigated, maybe more than that.  We take care of Michigan, both the Lower and Upper Peninsulas and forty-two counties in northern Ohio.  The Chicago office has more cases.  Cases waiting to be investigated, some are waiting a year or more before they are.  Not to mention internal federal sector cases.”

“Constituents are denied services, we have nothing to do about this and have no say in the budget process.  Employees have elderly parents, special needs kids, financial obligations, and our income, our jobs have been snatched up from under us.” 

“Why are we out of work?  I’ve been depleting savings and will have to dip into my retirement reserves.  Here I am, gainfully employed, trying to have to pay bills.”

“I’d like to thank ordinary citizens, their support, empathy, sympathy, and donations.  My sister lives in Washington state, and got together with a group of people to donate food, meat, perishables, and gift cards.  Because of federal regulations gift cards have to be $20 or less.”

“She’s sending it over to me so I can distribute supplies to my coworkers.  I am so moved by this.”

“We have a heat and water fund, called THAW and a few other programs; and then there are just the folks helping their neighbors, federal workers and their families.  They are true Americans.” 

If she could speak to her elected officials right now, Stephanie would ask;

“Tell me why you are doing this?   Congress, the administration?  Why are we suffering over a budget issue?  Why are we bearing the brunt of the suffering?   Maybe we’d feel a bit better if someone would give us an answer.  It wouldn’t change things, but maybe, we’d feel a bit better about this.”

Patrick Cano

 Public Housing Revitalization Specialist

Housing and Urban Development 

January 24, 2019

“AFGE Local 911 represents all HUD employees in the Chicagoland metro area—multifamily oversight fair housing oversight, public health, Housing Choice Vouchers.  There are 355 workers represented, and all 355 are on furlough.  Prior to the shutdown they frontloaded funds to give housing authorities enough money to keep the lights on.  Now that we are approaching the beginning of February some agencies will have funds to get them through February, others will be able to make it through March.”

“The Chicago Housing Authority, they have plenty of funds.  It is the housing agencies in the six collar-county region that are more vulnerable.  The biggest concern is for voucher holders.  When HUD is not making subsidy payments, renters cannot pay their rent.  Folks could get evicted the week of Feb 4th.”

Over 4.8 million households benefit from HUD rental assistance.  7,163 staff from the Housing and Urban Development were furloughed.

“It is not just HUD, there is the USDA- in charge of food and nutrition.  The EPA which oversees land and water, we have a lot of superfund sites in the region with a high level of chemical contaminants.  The USDA is closed.  Food, your steaks, they aren’t inspected, or inspections are done rushed and lackadaisically.”

“The first impact will be on the elderly and disabled.  They are the largest population with subsidies, and will be hit first, and hardest.  Landlords that provide housing for seniors, and the disabled will have the option to evict with five days of non-payment.  February 5th.”

“Next to the elderly and disabled, are Veterans.  With Veterans, about a third of those who come home from foreign deployments receive housing subsidies.  They won’t get it, and now they will be hurt getting out the gate, now that they’ve returned home.”

“These folks can’t generate revenue to provide for day to day expenses.”

“Our Families can only survive so long.  There is food, and clothing, and a lot of expenses outside of housing.  This is the biggest issue we have as furloughed federal employees.  We get help from the light people, for utilities, and mortgages.  A ton of members are having trouble getting food.  One called me saying, I’m on the way to the food pantry, what are you doing to help me?   Plus, any member can’t go to a food pantry that provides subsidized housing where we provide oversight of that agency.  For example, Catholic Charities of Chicago is the largest food pantry, social service agency and provider of subsidized housing.  We can’t go there.  It’s a “conflict of interest,” an ethical question.”

“I’d say to the administration and congress, that you swore an oath to protect the Constitution of the United States and when the leader of the Senate is not willing to introduce a bill because the President says he will veto it, he has done away with checks and balances.  The Speaker and Senate leader is not abiding by his duty to protect the Constitution to provide for the American people and to protect the country from all enemies both foreign and domestic.”

“We are sitting at an impasse.  We are at a congressional impasse.  We can’t get by without negotiation.  Without conciliation and compromise nothing is going to happen.  The elderly, disabled, and veterans will pay first and foremost.”

“I’m a union leader, and this is a clear attack on organized labor.  It is the same as what you had down in Illinois with Rauner’s budget stalemate, with what Scott Walker did in Wisconsin, and what Reagan did with the air traffic controllers.  They had a two-year budget stalemate in Illinois to break the back of the union; in Wisconsin they tried to break d the back of the union, and now this federal government shutdown—it’s to break the unions.”

“Unions are the last bastion the last line of defense for working individuals to earn a working wage to pay your bills.  You better join a union.  Maybe not if you are poor or rich—on top, but the union is the last vestige of the middle class.  That is what this action by leaders is—against labor organizations.”

“All we want is a working wage for a working day.  A fair wage for a fair day’s work.  Let my members work.  Let them get a day of work so they can earn a day’s pay.”

Frank Lagunas

Drinking Water Safety Certification Manager

Environmental Protection Agency

January 24, 2019

“I recently took another job just before the shutdown, but I was a drinking water safety certification manager for six states in the Midwest—Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and Michigan.  I make sure that drinking water was safe for over 50 million people.”

“Out of 950 employees in region five, 925 are furloughed.  Only about 25 or 27 have been deemed essential.  We already lost 200 in the last two years.  20% of region five cut due to the current administration’s attacks on the environment and the EPA as a whole.”

“It runs the gambit, every program is understaffed, and has been cut.  They were going through a new round of consolidated before the shut-down.  The division directors toing the line instead of supporting public health.  Scientists and engineers already have been under attack.”

“Folks are already debating whether to retire we are certain that when we get to work, a  lot of  employees will be putting in for retirement.”

“The fact is that they aren’t hiring and not replacing natural attrition employees that remain.  We are below 1970 levels of staffing, even though we have two times more citizens and two times more oversight responsibility.  Look at the budget.

 In 1979, the EPA’s budget was $5.4 billion dollars.  Adjusting for inflation, today’s budget is more than half the size of the budget forty years ago.

“We have twice the responsibility and two times the population.  In the last two years 15% of the workforce was cut, not matter how dedicated or resilient you are, they are undermining the agency people will quit, find other jobs and retire.  The natural attrition rate is 5% a year.  40% of the workforce is eligible to retire today.”

“Emergent concerns are not going to be investigated.”

Samples and measurements will be lost, water samples have various hold times otherwise the data is invalidated.”

“Lead is a big topic.  A lead sample taken prior to the shutdown after 6 months is no longer accurate.  Any not sealed within 14 days won’t be able to be used as an analysis.”

“The data is gone.  It is a snapshot microbial issues of concern of contaminants.  We can’t get the information to sample and monitor the issues.  Microbial samples have a 30 days window.  Those samples will be false negatives.  After that 30-day hold time, measurements aren’t viable.”

“This is a life and death situation.  Vulnerable communities will be impacted.  When Flint was at its worst, there was a 30% increase in miscarriages due to high lead levels.  anything can occur when there is no oversight.  They want to be aware.”

“Consuming contaminants creates health risks we won’t know about until they develop down the line, until health impacts develop.  Legionaries disease, E. coli outbreaks, you’ll see more and more of these.  FDA inspectors are furloughed too.  There are many microbial agents.  There is no way for people to know.”

“As far as polluters go, it’s hard enough to ID the principal responsible party with enough degree of certainty who is causing dumping, or a spill, or didn’t practice safe remediation guidelines.  Right now the City of Chicago all the cops were put on furlough, crime would go unchecked.  The same thing with polluters.  People with unscrupulous morals are free to poison vulnerable communities with impunity.”

I have a background in aerospace you have federal employees inspect safety of aircraft working without pay.  Think about it.  The possibilities of what would happen here with employees forced to work without pay—so many lives are at stake.  FBI, TSA, Air Traffic Controllers working without pay.  There will be an immediate and long-term harm.”

Samuel Kit

Bureau of Prisons

January 25, 2019

“In Kentucky, where Mitch McConnell is Senator, there are five counties where there are federal prisons; they receive at least 30,000 a month in tax revenue each.  A lot of Kentucky counties are so that this pays for ambulance services, snow cleanup, and other essential services in emergencies like the snow they are getting now.  There is an occupational tax in McCreary county for example, a 1.5% tax.”

“Now I live in Chicago. Work at the Metropolitan Correctional center, the prison downtown Chicago.  People use a parking pass, take the train, or pay 40 dollars a day to park.  My train ticket was declined.  The government transit subsidy is 200 a month.  It’s not just correctional workers.  There are inmates on psychotropic medication, insulin, and we have medical staff who administer these.  The same thing for feeding inmates as well as their medication.  They have civil rights.”

“People are utilizing sick leave to work side jobs—door dash, Grub Hub, Uber; but in rural counties they don’t have these services.  People are getting frustrated; If I take off someone is going to have to work my shift.  We had several new folks, new officers arrive, and were losing officers we need to address staffing and safety issues.”

“A lot of folks are going to the food bank.  The Greater Chicago Food Depository delivered 100 boxes of food.  People are already living paycheck to paycheck to get through. At this time can’t pay rent.  Eviction notices will go out February 4th.”

“We’re working without pay  MCC has a lower than average census, of 600 inmates.  About 7% off staff have called off.  Though part of it may be the flu season.  But people looking for excuses not to go to work, a lot of guys who work in the suburbs said it wasn’t safe because of last night’s snow.  Would they have come in if they were getting paid?”   

“I blame both sides, including Mitch McConnell.”

“We have child care, and elderly parents to care for.  No one is agreeing to anything.  When I see folks on a beach in Puerto Rico, it makes me sick.”

“If we can’t come to work, so they can fill medications, the pharmacists we can’t give them [inmates] medication.”

“I assume private prisons are operating as normal, I’m not sure.  Federal prisons provide more programs to prevent recidivism, I’m not sure if private prisons are still getting money during this shutdown.”

“If we miss two payments for supplemental health insurance, they’ll cancel it.  Come Monday will be the second check we’ll miss.  On December 31st we got a partial paycheck.  We had no check on the 14th, now the 28th there won’t be a check.  Unless they do something, we have to wait until November to the open enrollment period to reapply for dental, vision, and long-term care insurance.”

Christine Vital

TSA Officer

Transportation Security Administration

January 25, 2019

“I am a TSA officer at O’Hare airport as well as Legislative and Political Coordinator for TSA local 777, which represents 1,300 people.”

“I am not getting my paycheck.  I own my manufactured home but haven’t had money to pay the rent on the land it’s on.   The last rent was due in January and either I have the money to pay on February 10th or I’ll get a 5-day notice.”

“When I went in to talk to them about paying my rent, I thought I’d be ok, and that they’d listen to me.  On Dec. 28th, we didn’t get paid.  I work 2 pm to 10:30 pm and you are supposed to get shift differentials for time after six pm and before 6 am.  For me it’s forty hours every two weeks.  I didn’t get differentials on that last check.  I paid all my little bills, my car payment and everything.  I had 200 dollars in savings; that was enough to buy groceries and get to work.  I got a five-day notice on January 10th.  I went up there to the property manager of the mobile home park.  I said, you said you’d work with me Melissa.  She threatened me.  I’m not refusing to pay my rent.  She said I’m going to give you a five-day notice, and take you to court to evict you. She said she’d take my house away from me.  My house is paid off, I just rent the land.”

“I have a live interview with CNN and MSNBC.  The Department of Homeland Security gave us a letter to give to creditors, but it hasn’t helped.  I had a live interview with Senator Durbin, about how the shutdown is impacting me.”

“I barely have gas for my car.  I have a 23-year-old son who lives with me.  He works a part time job at the shoe store.  He was working on his Associate Degree, but didn’t go back this semester to help.  He just earns $400 for two weeks of pay.  That’s nothing.  I only have a quarter tank of gas.  I live in Justice, Illinois, and commute to O’Hare [It is over 22 miles].  

“I don’t have enough gas to get home. I wasn’t going to get stranded out there, with this weather, so I called in yesterday – for hardship.   That was the first time I missed a shift during this shutdown.  Yes, we are missing a second paycheck.  We have families.  People are still showing up.  With missing this pay check, there may be more who call off. People are getting other jobs to put food on the table.  Some officers are married to each other – both are not receiving a paycheck.  We’re all screwed.”

“TSA has been getting the highlight of this shutdown.  But prisons, the secret service, the federal aviation administration, they direct air traffic, no one is getting paid.  It’s a horrible situation.  They shouldn’t be doing this.”

“All we got was a 40 hour of paycheck for all of January to pay health insurance.  In 30 days, our insurance will be cut off. What about the diabetics, those with health issues?  450 dollars for health insurance, and 115 for dental and vision, I may have got a negative check, if I have anything, maybe $10.   If they could get us a $500 bonus, why can’t they pay us more?  Apparently, they found an emergency fund from last fiscal year to pay us that bonus, and forty hours to pay for our insurance.  Besides that, we are working for free.  Forty hours pay – just for health insurance.”

“For myself I wonder, how long can we last.  We can’t strike.  If we do a blue flu, we’d lose our jobs.  I got a 15-gift card.  I can’t get out anywhere.  It’s 2 degrees out this morning.  What the heck am I going to do?  Today the high will be 5 degrees.  I’m worried about my car, I only have a quarter tank of gas.  I’m worried about losing my house.”

“I got to work and do my job, we do our jobs, 100%.  I’ve been on the phone for the past week and a half, with Sen. Dick Durbin and Sen. Tammy Duckworth.  I have no issue with our Illinois senators.  They’ve been in touch, with email and phone calls.  To think I’d be on the phone with Tammy Duckworth’s office so much, Jan [Schakowsky] all of them.  When we go to Washington, we have personal contact.”

“They ask about our health, asking about officers’ status.  But we haven’t got any info about what’s happening in Washington, they aren’t telling us what’s going on.”

“Even if they government is reopened, this has hurt us tremendously.  We missed paychecks, there will be late fees, now its going into February.  Even if the government is reopened; this has hurt us.  We are working for free.  No one signed up to work for free.  I have had this job since 2002.  Who would work at a job for one month and not get a paycheck?”

Morgan Stewart

Civil rights Investigator

Department of Housing and Urban Development

January 25, 2019

As a civil rights investigator for the Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity (FHE0) at HUD, Morgan enforces the Fair Housing Act (Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act) and the Title VI of Civil Rights Act.

The Fair Housing Act protects buyer or renter from discrimination by seller or landlord based on certain protected classes: race, color, disability, familial status, national origin, religion, and sex. 

Title VI prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, or national origin in any program or activity that receives federal funds or other federal financial assistance.

“The office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity investigates complaints of discrimination based on certain protected classes.  So, for example, a woman applies to rent an apartment and the application is accepted. The landlord then finds out she is pregnant and denies her the lease. She is otherwise qualified and there is no justifiable reason for the denial. This could potentially be discrimination based on familial status.  We would investigate that complaint and if discrimination is found, we would seek resolution.” (If discrimination is found, this would be a violation of Fair Housing complaint. Fair Housing complaints deal with the private housing market.)

“Cities, municipalities, and housing authorities that receive federal funds must adhere to Civil Rights requirements, under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. The office completes Title VI compliance reviews within the Midwestern region. Local governments may receive different types of federal funds in the form of grants, such as: CDBG (Community Development Block Grant), ESG (Emergency Solutions Grants), and HOPWA (Housing Opportunities for Persons with AIDS). It is rare, but cities sometimes opt-out of receiving federal funds.”

“All the civil rights investigators in the Midwest have been furloughed, as well as members of complaint in-take and support staff.  There are around 10 investigators in Chicago with others across the region in Minnesota, Indiana, Ohio, Wisconsin, and Michigan.”

“The first impact of the shutdown is that fair housing complaints will not be received or investigated.  It means that someone who is living in a precarious situation, say someone who lives with a landlord or a repairman who is sexually harassing them, may not see a resolution in sight. Situations like this often happen with single mothers and people in vulnerable positions.”

“Another impact will be on those living with disabilities who file complaints. They won’t have their complaints investigated; violations will not be investigated; and the law enforced.  People may be living somewhere unsafe with their disability.  We get hundreds of complaints every year.  HUD has one of the older (age) workforces in the federal government with a large amount of employees who are coming to retirement age. These positions are not necessarily being refilled.  We are busy with the cases we have already, and they are all put off now.”

“Federal workers and the public we serve should not be a bargaining chip in a political fight.  Border security and a wall is a different political consideration than the lives and safety of federal workers and the public.  We should resolve this the way politics is supposed to, not tie it to funding.  That is wrong.”

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