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'Anger, helplessness' for workers living payday to payday

Oct. 3, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
Protesters display placards during a demonstration in front of the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Oct. 1, urging Congress to pass the budget bill. Across the Army, federal government workers are dealing with the frustrating and dispiriting impact of the partial government shutdown. (Jewel Samad / AFP via Getty Images)
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Because of the shutdown, Joshua Keller and some of his coworkers at Fort Sill, Okla., are so worried that they have filed for unemployment.

The 29-year-old is one of 30 coworkers at the post public works department who were stunned to be sent home Oct. 1. He has no idea when he would return, and without his $15-per-hour job, he is scraping by on odd jobs.

“I don’t know how I’m going to pay my bills the next month, or get my mortgage or car payment paid, everything came to a screeching halt,” said Keller, who is a married Army veteran with a 2-year-old son.

“It’s a lot of anger, a lot of helplessness,” he said. “I don’t side with Republicans or Democrats because neither’s getting the job done. And we all have the struggle because of the shutdown.”

Across the Army, federal government workers like Keller are dealing with the frustrating and dispiriting impact of the partial government shutdown.

An estimated 800,000, or about 40 percent of the total federal workforce, have been furloughed. The rest, because their jobs are deemed necessary to protect life or property or some other critical function, are still coming to work, but with the exception of some Defense Department employees will not see a paycheck until after the shutdown ends.

In the Army, the shutdown means evaluations won’t be processed and that most soldiers and Army civilians traveling or away for training must return to their duty stations.

Staff Sgt. Desmond Cassell, 31, of Fort Story, Va., said he and his pregnant wife waited seven hours to replace her ID after driving to 45 minutes to a facility at Hampton Roads, Va., with a “ridiculous” line.

All the dining facilities on the post were closed, which complicated their wait, and the couple has seen his dental appointments and her obstetrics appointments canceled until further notice.

“It’s kind of a pain,” said Cassell, a truck driver. “I wish they would just go ahead and fix it.”

One place the furlough is causing anxiety and headaches is the isolated desert post Dugway Proving Ground, Utah, where contractors like Cindi Hawkins must drive an hour for groceries because the shutdown closed the post commissary.

“Just drop a small community in a desert, and that’s us. When you’re that far out it’s very, very hard to get supplies,” said Hawkins, a 61-year-old garrison administrative officer.

Beyond the inconvenience, the shutdown’s financial impact is multiplied in some cases because it’s common for whole families to be employed by the post, Hawkins said.

“I’m lucky my husband, a government contractor, is still being paid, but son and my daughter-in-law are both working for the government, and they’re not getting paid,” Hawkins said. “So, there’s their salary.”

Most upsetting to Hawkins was the anti-contractor sentiment she keeps hearing, that folks like her are under-worked, overpaid and expendable. To the contrary, she has worked for the government faithfully since 1987, and like many other contractors, had her wages frozen for three years and endured this year’s furlough.

“We know what we do for a living, we know how far back we’ve been cut as far as personnel, and some of us are doing the jobs of two or three people,” she said. “We’re just like everybody else, and we’re just trying to make a living, and for people to be so hateful towards us is hard to understand.”

At Fort Drum, N.Y., before the commissary closed indefinitely, panicked shoppers overloaded their carts, cleaned out the produce aisle and fought over the last of the meat, said Army wife and post employee Jennifer Limerick. No grocery carts were available, and the checkout line circled the store, she said.

“It looked like people were getting ready for an apocalypse,” said Limerick, 32. “People were stealing meat out of each other’s carts and getting into fights over it.”

Limerick, whose job involves distributing medical ID cards to spouses, said the shutdown is interfering with spouses who want to enroll for medical benefits. What’s more, the post treatment facility where families typically get care is not accepting new appointments.

Limerick is considered essential at her job, so she must work, but she is receiving an IOU instead of a paycheck, she said. This puts her in a bind because she cannot stay home with her 5-year-old daughter, but she does not know how she will pay for daycare.

“We live paycheck to paycheck,” she said. “The bills aren’t going to stop coming because of the government shutdown, they still want to be paid on time.”

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