Workplace

Congress stalls, and struggle begins for Kansas City’s federal workers

Updated: 2013-10-09T22:50:51Z

By MIKE HENDRICKS

The Kansas City Star

Gotta keep those checks going out to seniors, survivors and the disabled. So among the “essential” government services that continue to operate during the federal shutdown is the Social Security Administration.

But not every department within Social Security fits the definition of essential, as Rebeca Avila learned.

After arriving for work at the Richard Bolling Federal Building in downtown Kansas City on Tuesday morning, she was among the “nonessential” Social Security workers given four hours to clean out their stuff and not come back until further notice.

And with Friday’s paycheck being the last one she can truly count on until Congress reaches an agreement on a continuing spending resolution, Avila is understandably worried about the bills.

“It’s rough,” she said. “We’ve got two kids in middle school who are active in sports.”

Even with her husband’s job in the private sector unaffected, getting by won’t be easy if this goes on more than a few days.

Which is why this nonessential government employee won’t be making any nonessential purchases until further notice.

“Cutting back on all my spending,” she said.

Clearly, that’s not good news for the economy, nationally and locally. During the shutdown, some 800,000 Americans won’t be paid, costing the economy an estimated $1 billion a week.

Closer to home, the federal government is the largest single employer in the Kansas City area.

While there’s no word on how many of those 41,500 federal employees and contractors working for 146 agencies were told to stay home Tuesday, it’s somewhat immaterial.

Even essential employees are being affected adversely. All paid leave has been ruled out until further notice.

But that’s not the worst of it, when it comes to their pocketbooks.

While those officially essential employees must continue coming to work, they aren’t being paid, either.

Sure, during previous shutdowns, workers got paid retroactively for time on the job. This time, who knows?

The Congress of 2013 is not like the ones that came before. It’s far more divided, often teetering on the brink and sometimes toppling over it, as we saw earlier this year with the sequester that cut federal spending across the board.

That means some essential workers could end up working for free, never to be compensated.

Meanwhile, they’re out the gas money it took to get them to and from work.

“How would that sit well with anybody?” said Garth Stocking, legislative coordinator with Local 1336 of the American Federal Government Employees union.

It certainly doesn’t sit well with Paige Tuley and other employees at the Internal Revenue Service office near Union Station. They worked a short day on Tuesday without pay.

Processing income tax returns is essential, and that’s what Tuley does. But rather than work a full shift with the chance of someday being paid for the full eight hours, IRS workers were sent home as soon as the day’s paperwork was done.

If they are ever paid, they will only be paid for those hours worked.

“Being the parent of three boys, it’s going to affect us pretty hard,” said Tuley, a single mom of a toddler and 8-year-old twins.

On her Facebook page, she asked her friends if any of them knew where she could find some part-time work.

Back at the Bolling building, about a dozen essential Social Security employees carried signs and marched in circles during their lunch hour at the corner of 12th and Locust streets.

“Hey, hey, ho, ho!” they chanted, “let’s say no to the furlough!”

Observing the scene from under a shade tree, one of their co-workers offered this assessment of what’s it’s like to be working for no pay.

“It sucks,” he said. “In Congress they’re getting paid, and we’re not getting paid.”

All the same, Bob, who wouldn’t give his last name out of fear of retribution from his superiors, said he hoped our nation’s leaders can reach a settlement soon. Thursday at the very latest.

“Going to Vegas,” he said.

But if Congress fails to reach an agreement, he won’t be able to take Friday off as planned and will have to change plane tickets.

Somewhere in that may be a metaphor for the current dilemma on Capitol Hill. Or maybe not.

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