Federal workers suffer while congress fights
All of the 26,696 employees working in NYC deemed "non-essential" have been furloughed during the cliff-hanging budget battle in Washington D.C. that threatens to spin the U.S, into default. Long accustomed to "continuing resolution" brinkmanship, idled federal workers have been barred from working for the last two weeks, and even from answering email. Nor have they received paychecks since the crisis began on Sept. 30. Here are three of their stories.
At Brooklyn's P.S. 11, grateful administrators joke they don't want the shutdown to end.
That's because school mom Cynthia McKnight, 44, mom of third-grader Orion, researched and help set up a debate team and a lacrosse team for the public school in the two weeks since she was furloughed from her job as a Housing and Urban Development quality assurance officer.
But the shut down is no joke. P.S. 11 is "having a readathon and I usually sponsor a kid who is living in a shelter," for $100 to $200, McKnight explained. That's not possible this year because McKnight is no longer receiving a paycheck.
McKnight, who lives in Clinton Hill, has a boyfriend - a retired police officer - but he is ill and waiting for his name to pop to the top of the kidney transplant list. McKnight supports an eight-year-old son, helps another 18-year-old son now in college, and helps support a stroke ridden mother and other elderly disabled relatives in South Carolina. "Thank God, we always lived simply," and had already acquired the habit of frugality, she said. Still, they cutback. "We walk everywhere now: No more taking the bus for $2.50."
As president of her union local, McKnight has received many phone calls from other union members struggling to make the mortgage and pay the rent. "They're afraid," she recounted. "The younger workers don't make much and have student loans. They never had a chance to save anything," so their financial health is precarious. Too, she worries about the public. "I feel sorry for our clients. There are a lot of people facing eviction," due to Section 8 and NCHA problems, who call HUD for help, she explained. There is no one in the office now to take their calls.
Elaine Powell-Belnavis, an economic development specialist for the Small Business Administration, paid $1,800 more than a year ago to take her 16-year-old son on a one -week cruise to the Bahamas that begins this Sunday. This week, she found herself at a church food pantry, accepting vegetables.
In 2012, "I had saved up and saved up and never been on a cruise before and thought 'I'm getting older now, so let me treat myself.'" But Powell-Belnavis, ("I'm 50-ish"), who lives in Springfield Gardens, Queens, recently found out that gratuities and even things like drinking water are not included in the pre-paid price. The vacation she anticipated is now a voyage of agita. "No one's getting any souvenirs," said Powell-Belnavis. "I have to come home to all these bills. I have a stand-alone house and I have a mortgage bill, a light bill, a water bill, a telephone and cable bill," not to mention $2,000 due to her son's Catholic School, and car insurance.
Powell-Belnavis worrries about all start-ups and construction, architecture and other firms who have had the loans, grants and other assistance aborted when congress reached an impasse. "We're in public service! We want to serve the public!" but the workers were told that they would be breaking the law to perform work during the shutdown, said Powell-Belvnavis, adding that she felt like a hostage. "It's like we're a frog in a pot. And the water is getting hot," said Powell-Belnavis.
Larry Hirsch, 53, lives in South Orange, N.J. but works - when he's working - at the HUD office at 26 Federal Plaza as a senior community planning and development representative. His job is to help groups providing affordable housing for homeless and lower income New Yorkers get grants and other federal assistance. Some of their funding "is supposed to be on an automated payment system, but I don't know if that's working," said Hirsch. "Some are definitely experiencing a cash shortfall and that's very difficult," for hard-pressed non-profits.
"I'm very fortunate," said Hirsch, in that his family has a savings cushion and his wife, a marketing professional, is still bringing in income. But anxiety nonetheless encroaches: "My life insurance payment is due. I want to be responsible and protect my family, but do I take money out from my savings to cover it?"
Hirsch is pondering the ripple effects of the shutdown. The delis, restaurants and other businesses surrounding the Manhattan Federal Building and federal court house - businesses which have already weathered setbacks after 9/11 and Superstorm Sandy - have seen their incomes plunge, he noted.
He's used his time off to catch up on his "honey do" list ("I trimmed the hedges") and to spend more time with his 11-year-old daughter, but he's also participating in demonstrations, because he's mad. He'll weather his reversal, he said, but the nation "is heading toward a global economic disaster," as a result of intransigent forces in Washington D.C. who would rather sink the ship than alter course, he said. "Anyone who wants that is irresponsible and should not be serving in Congress," Hirsch said.