'They're using us as pawns': Government shutdown hits home for furloughed Scott workers

News-DemocratOctober 5, 2013 

That hissing sound you hear is $3.2 million in direct and indirect economic benefits leaking every day from the metro-east economy because of the federal government shutdown that began last week.

But no one has to tell Gary Cope of Columbia about the shutdown's impact.

Cope, 61, who works at the Scott Air Force Base sewer treatment plant, is still on the job, but won't get paid for his labor until after the shutdown ends -- whenever that is.

So far, it's been nearly a week with no end in sight.

"Personally, I think it's going to last at least a month," he said.

Cope is one of 5,000 Scott civilian workers directly hit by the shutdown. More than 3,400 were sent home on unpaid furlough Tuesday morning when the shutdown began. Active-duty personnel are still working but not being paid.

Like Cope, they are being kept on the job because their positions are considered essential to the base's mission or its safety and security.

But that's not much comfort to Cope, especially because he had to absorb the financial impact of six unpaid furlough days in July and August because of the federal budget sequester -- itself the result of an earlier stand-off between the GOP-led House and the Democratic-controlled Senate over budget cuts.

Still, for Cope, things could be worse. He is the divorced father of two grown children who are out of the house.

"If this had happened to me 10 years ago, I would've been extremely stressed," he said.

Nationwide, more than 800,000 federal workers have been sent home without pay, resulting in a direct economic loss of at least $300 million daily, according to economists.

In the metro-east, the direct economic loss is $855,000 daily from the furloughing of 3,000 Scott workers alone.

But the estimated ripple effect, which is at least $3 in indirect losses for every $1 lost in pay, adds up to more than $3.2 million, according to Ellen Krohne, executive director of Leadership Council Southwestern Illinois, in Edwardsville.

Most federal workers related to law endorcement, such as the FBI and U.S. Marshal's Service and the federal courts, are still on the job, but others, including the IRS and people who maintain federal recreation areas such as Carlyle Lake, have been laid off.

The partial government shutdown will force furloughed Scott facilities manager Nick Weizman to make some tough choices in the days ahead.

"I've got to figure out what I'm going to do as far as who I'm going to pay and who I'm not," said Weizman, of Belleville. "I've got savings and I'll have to dig into that."

Weizman declined to assess blame for the shutdown.

"You hear so much you don't know who to believe," he said. "They need to do what's best for the American people. They're using us as pawns."

Lawmakers in Washington are preparing for a drawn-out battle of wills between House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and President Barack Obama. Obama, the leader of the Democratic Party, has said he won't negotiate with Boehner until the House votes to end the shutdown and agrees to raise the nation's debt ceiling before the Oct. 17 deadline.

House members such as John Shimkus, R-Collinsville, said they are frustrated by the president's refusal to negotiate at this point.

"He needs to negotiate on something," Shimkus said. "We've got a divided government. We negotiate all the time. This is nothing new."

For U.S. Rep. Bill Enyart, D-Belleville, the shutdown represents a betrayal of the American people, particularly for veterans and members of the active-duty military.

Enyart, a retired two-star general and former commander of the Illinois National Guard, noted that 1,100 uniformed Guard members who are termed "technicians" and are considered federal employees, have been furloughed without pay.

"I think the best way to honor the troops and the veterans is to reopen the government," said Enyart.

Shimkus voted for the House bill in the wee hours of Sept. 28 that would have delayed the start of the Affordable Care Act -- the massive healthcare reform law known as Obamacare -- by a year and repealed a tax to help pay for it. Enyart voted against it.

That bill, as far as Senate Democrats were concerned, was the last straw. They rejected it, thus setting in motion a series of steps leading to the shutdown.

Shimkus noted that, despite the shutdown, Obamacare continues to roll out across the country.

"I would hope that the people who thought that if we shut the government down that would stop Obamacare, I would hope that this last week has been instructive to them," he said.

For Shimkus, the big issue that Obama and Congress need to address before the shutdown ends is the nation's huge debt -- nearly $17 trillion and counting -- as well as an annual federal budget deficit that exceeds $800 billion.

"I want us to get control of our spending so our country doesn't collapse in an economic decline some time in future," he said. "All we want is for the president to negotiate with us."

U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Taylorville, who represents parts of the metro-east, also voted for the bill to delay the roll-out of Obamacare. But now the healthcare reform law has taken a back seat to fiscal reform in Davis' mind.

"I want to see a plan that continues to hold the line on spending, but also make sure the president is able to implement the appropriation that we put forth that isn't punitive and punishing," Davis said.

As bad as the shutdown has been, the real danger lies with the threat of a default on the national debt, Enyart noted.

"We are the world's reserve currency. That is a huge economic benefit to us," he said. "We are playing a game of push and shove on an economic cliff. If we have a stalemate for several months on it, then the economic implications of that are quite frankly horrendous."

For Wanda Huber of Mascoutah, a retired Air Force computer operator who works at Air Mobility Command at Scott, the shutdown has been a double-whammy for her and her husband, a civilian worker at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

At first, both Huber and her husband were sent home without pay. But then the Corps asked for him to come back. But that's proven impossible.

"The people (in Washington) who do the paperwork were already furloughed," she said.

Huber said she convinced her husband to enter the federal civil service because "to me it was a secure job. Now, I'm regretting that. It's to me, at this point, one of the most insecure jobs."

Belleville News-Democrat is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service