‘It’s Awful, Really’ — NY Government Workers Assess Impact of the Shutdown

The West Pond Trail at the National Park Service’s Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge.  Eagle  photo by Jonathan Sperling.

The West Pond Trail at the National Park Service’s Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge. Eagle photo by Jonathan Sperling.

By David Brand

Heather Kramer notices the trash piling up along Cross Bay Boulevard as it bisects Gateway National Recreation Area, where she worked last year. Under normal circumstances, employees with the National Park Service (NPS) workers would pick up the garbage — but they are all furloughed during the government shutdown.

“I struggle a lot with the garbage,” said Kramer, who lives in Far Rockaway and works as a subcontractor designing curriculums for students who visit Gateway. “That’s all National Park land, and you can just see it accumulate along the side of the road.”

As the shutdown entered its 28th day Friday, Kramer is also struggling with a loss of income.

“It’s hard to just make it work, especially in a place like New York City,” she said. “People’s patience can only last so long — and their bank accounts, too.”

Kramer worked as a seasonal employee at Gateway from May to September 2018. By this time last year, she had already interviewed for the job and the National Park Service had begun hiring and training vital “1039” workers — seasonal staffers who can work no more than 1,039 hours per year. She said she worries the shutdown will delay the hiring process and hinder curriculum development for New York City public school students who visit the park each spring.

“It’s a little upsetting, because it means that maybe we’re not going to be ready to host all the children and the school field trips in the spring,” Kramer said.

Kramer is one of thousands of New York City residents experiencing the effects of the shutdown. But their pain could be the tip of the icerberg if the shutdown continues, said Mayor Bill de Blasio at a press conference Thursday.

The full impact of the shutdown will fall heaviest on millions of low-income New Yorkers who depend on benefits and entitlements, like food stamps, funded by the federal government beginning March 1, when the funding will run out.

“The danger is 44 days away,” de Blasio said Thursday. “On March 1, at least 2 million New Yorkers will be personally, negatively affected by the shutdown. And the people of New York City will, starting March 1, lose half a billion dollars of federal support every month.”

“I cannot promise we’ll be okay,” he continued.

‘It’s Awful, Really’

Furloughed employees and out-of-work contractors say they can already relate to de Blasio’s message.

The current shutdown — the longest ever — has had a much deeper impact than previous government shutdowns, said one Long Island government contractor who asked to remain anonymous out of concern that criticizing the government could interfere with his future job prospects.  

“It’s awful, really, the feeling of just hanging there waiting for other people to make decisions that are directly affecting my life,” he said. “I can’t really do anything about it.”

As a contractor, he is not entitled to back pay that government employees will likely earn when the shutdown ends. He and his wife are struggling to get approved for mortgage to buy a home.

“We had gotten a pre-approval for a mortgage before the shutdown,” he said. “I was told not to change jobs or anything to affect the mortgage. Now we don’t even think we’d get one because of my lack of income. Do we wait? Do I look for a new job and run the risk of having to get another pre approval? Or will it even matter if we can’t get one because of the shutdown?”

Dan Conklin, who works as an air traffic controller in Burlington, Vermont, also finds himself in a state of limbo.

Since air traffic controllers are considered essential employees, Conklin has worked the past month without pay — a burden that weighs heavy on him and his fiancee as they save for their upcoming wedding.

“We are professionals, and we are trained to work under stressful conditions. There are just certain things that we shouldn’t have to worry about, like whether or not we’ll be receiving our next paycheck,” said Conklin, who moved from Williamsburg to begin his air traffic control career in Vermont.  “Nearly all of my savings have gone into our wedding fund. Just yesterday, I had to move money from the wedding fund in order to pay some monthly bills.”

Conklin said he and his fiancee have stopped dining out. He brings his own coffee and lunch to work each day to save money.  

He was also unable to pay off his credit card bills after his holiday spending.

“Being that the shutdown happened over Christmas, I had some credit card bills that I would have paid off by now,” he said. “Instead, I paid the minimum because of the uncertainty of when my next paycheck will come.”

A Month of Work Piling Up

Furloughed workers are prohibited by law from setting foot in their places of employment during the shutdown. The rule has prevented National Park Service (NPS) workers from voluntarily picking up trash at Gateway, Kramer said.

It has also meant a massive backlog of work for other federal staffers, a furloughed Forest Service archeologist told the Eagle.

“Besides the obvious effects of the shutdown — stress over money, the inability to do the job I love — there is also the stress of how much work will have accumulated during this shutdown that will add an immense amount of work to my already overloaded plate,” said the archeologist, who asked to remain anonymous.

She also said she loves her job and worries about how artifacts and other resources are affected during the monthlong shutdown.

“I do it because I love it,” she said. “I am extremely — some would argue overly — passionate about protecting and preserving cultural resources for generations to come. Not being able to do this and knowing that archaeological resources are being impacted by the shutdown is really tough.”

A Lack of ‘Perspective’ Among Decision Makers

Lawmakers and nongovernment workers simply lack the perspective to understand why the shutdown affects so many people, several contractors and government workers told the Eagle.

“There have been perspectives that if you’re furloughed it’s like being on vacation, but it’s not because you have to be ready to go back to work the next day if the government reopens,” said Kramer, the NPS worker. “You’re stuck in limbo.”

Others turn their anger against decision-makers in Washington.

The Long Island contractor said there is no end to the shutdown in sight and wonders whether President Donald Trump and members of Congress even care.

“I think the scariest thing is that, while it affects so many people, I don’t think it affects the everyday lives of enough people to put pressure on the government to end this,” he said

The Forest Service archeologist has earned next month’s rent money by selling homemade jewelry. She said her focus on her art has been the “silver lining” of the shutdown, which has otherwise strained her optimism.

“It’s hard to have hope for the future of this country when you see how selfish and animalistic people turn when they have no one to enforce rules that benefit all,” she said.