Uncle Sam is a self-cutter.
But unlike others who intentionally harm themselves and have our concern, Sam has earned our scorn.
His Congress disgraced the nation when much of the government shut down at midnight Friday because the partisans on Capitol Hill could not agree to keep it running. This is a gross dereliction of duty for the American people and particularly their employees.
Even Democrats who represent large numbers of the federal workforce put politics above the people. Virginia’s Democratic Sens. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine defended their opposition to House Republican legislation that would have kept the government open with their Thursday statement that said the temporary spending measure “ignores key priorities — community health centers, permanent protection for Dreamers, emergency relief for Florida, Texas, western states ravaged by wildfires, Puerto Rico, the USVI, opioid treatment, and pension reform. These issues are not going away and need to be addressed immediately.”
But partially shutting the government only delays addressing these issues.
Shortly after midnight, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, blamed Democrats, saying they “chose to filibuster a noncontroversial funding bill that contains nothing — not a thing — they do not support.”
As the debate over whether Republicans or Democrats deserve blame for this debacle boils, Jeff Roberts knows who loses when the government largely shuts. The retired Bureau of Prisons electronic technician is still waiting to be fully compensated from the last partial government shutdown, a shameful 16 days in 2013.
Roberts is one of about 25,000 federal employees and retirees who will benefit — eventually — from a U.S. Court of Federal Claims ruling in February. They were paid, but late. Then-Chief Judge Patricia Campbell-Smith ordered Uncle Sam to compensate them because they did not receive their pay, including overtime, on time.
But the court-ordered compensation is late coming.
It’s now been almost a year since the court’s decision and more than four years since the 2013 shutdown.
Yet, Heidi Burakiewicz is understanding. She represents the employees and cites a laborious bureaucratic process, not government foot-dragging, for the delay in making her clients whole.
On Tuesday, she and Justice Department lawyers jointly told the court they are working with a consultant who is helping with calculations on the payoff each employee is due. The lawyers expect to submit a joint status report to Campbell-Smith next month. In a joint brief last year, she and government lawyers cited “the complexity of the endeavor” in determining the amount for each worker.
“I’m hoping the government is close to collecting all the records they need to collect,” Burakiewicz, of the employment law firm Kalijarvi, Chuzi, Newman & Fitch, said in an interview. “The next step is calculating the payments.”
But, she adds, “this situation was clearly avoidable.”
For folks like Roberts, it’s also aggravating. And it’s not just about the money. There is an emotional toll.
Roberts recalls his son asking, “‘Are you still going to have a job?’ It isn’t something he should have to worry about.”
The family cut back on food and clothes for his children. Credit card debt grew.
Roberts said he talked to local bankers in his small Arkansas town, not just for himself but also on behalf of colleagues who turned to him as an older and wiser head. His bank allowed Roberts to delay truck loan payments without being reported to credit agencies.
One colleague had to contend with expensive prescription costs after an organ transplant. “That’s real stuff that people have to deal with,” Roberts said. “These are working people, not six-figure people.”
Managing finances without knowing when your paycheck will come — “it’s frustrating,” he said, “it’s extremely frustrating.”
Federal employees probably will get back pay after the current shutdown.
But unlike federal staffers, many contractors did not get back pay after the last shutdown and probably won’t this time. That’s particularly difficult for low-wage contract workers such as those who mop the floors, scrub the toilets and empty the trash in federal buildings.
One Agriculture Department cleaner, insisting on anonymity because she wants no hassle with her boss, complained that in 2013 “we didn’t get no money. … We lost pay, we didn’t get nothing.”
Now the single grandmother raising her child’s child is worried.
“I’m nervous about it,” she said. “I’m thinking what am I going to do next month if I don’t have no money to pay anything.”
Joe Davidson, a Washington Post columnist, covers the federal government issues in the Federal Insider, formerly the Federal Diary. Davidson previously was an assistant city editor at The Washington Post and a Washington and foreign correspondent with The Wall Street Journal, where he covered federal agencies and political campaigns.
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