Government workers tell Illinois congressmen of shutdown stress

By Kevin Beese Staff Reporter

Florence Cannon, a worker with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, talks at a rally at Chicago’s Federal Plaza. Cannon said she now qualifies for the federal Supplement Nutrition Assistance Program for low-income individuals — a program she monitors in her role with the USDA. (Photo by Kevin Beese/Chronicle Media)

Tamara Dervin has told her 9-year-old son that his birthday may come and go in February without a party.

“I told him, ‘I don’t know when I’m going back to work,’” said the senior auditor of the federal Commodity Futures Trading Commission. “That night his prayer before bed was ‘Open the government.’ We need to get back working. This is really affecting families.”

Patrick Cano jumped out of airplanes for his country, willing to go into harm’s way.

Now, he says, no one is jumping in to save him and his family as his government worker’s salary is gone during the federal shutdown.

“My mortgage is in forbearance. My student loans are in forbearance,” said Cano, a portfolio management specialist with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The disabled Marine Corps veteran said that his wife, for the first time in 28 years, wants him to look for another job.

“I’ve had to calm my family,” said Cano of Park Forest, who is also president of American Federation of Government Employees, AFL-CIO Local 911. “It’s added stress.”

Dervin and Cano were two federal employees who shared the government shutdown’s impact on them with Illinois Democratic congressional leaders at a roundtable Friday Jan. 18 in Chicago.

“We are public servants, we are not public slaves,” said HUD’s Crystal Bland.

U.S. Rep. Sean Casten (D-6th) said the roundtable was an opportunity to put faces on the shutdown.

“It was really a chance to bring the government shutdown’s impact home,” Casten told the Chronicle.

He admitted that his early days as a congressman have been frustrating, passing bills to open the government in his chamber of Congress, but seeing that same legislation, which has already been passed by the Senate, not being called for a vote.

Federal workers march Friday at Federal Plaza in Chicago, calling for an end to the government shutdown. (Photo by Kevin Beese/Chronicle Media)

Fellow freshman Congressman Jesus “Chuy” Garcia (D-3rd) also said he has been taken aback by the shutdown.

“This is not what I expected when I took the oath of office,” Garcia said at a rally of federal workers Friday afternoon. “I wanted to pursue creating jobs, not pursue getting federal employees back to work.”

He said to see federal workers with the burden they are now under is unthinkable.

“As a former union member, I am embarrassed that people who work for the federal government are having to take out loans and get food stamps,” Garcia said.

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said he flew back for the roundtable discussion hoping that the air traffic controller monitoring his flight was thinking about the airplane and not the mortgage payment that may be coming due.

“That’s the reality of the shutdown,” Durbin said. “We are putting stress and burden on people that should absolutely not be carrying that burden.”

Durbin said President Donald Trump was elected to lead and manage this country, “not to turn the lights out and shut it down.”

“The net result of what he is doing is causing hardship,” Durbin said.

Illinois’ senior senator said the longest government shutdown in U.S. history is impacting families and local economies.

U.S. Rep. Lauren Underwood (D-14th) asks a question during the roundtable discussion as her fellow freshman Illinois Congressman Sean Casten (D-6th, center) listens. (Photo by Kevin Beese/Chronicle Media)

Frank Lagunas, a water quality scientist with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, said there will be repercussions from the shutdown as EPA Superfund sites — some of the most contaminated land in the country — are not being cleaned during the shutdown and that air, water and land testing is not being done.

“Monitoring is a moment in time,” Lagunas said, responding to a question from Congressman Casten about whether monitoring is continuing near Sterigenics, the medical equipment sterilization company in the Southwest Suburbs, where ethylene oxide, a known carcinogen, has been detected in the air.

Lagunas said unless the company is conducting its own testing, no monitoring is being done as of right now near the Sterigenics facility.

“No one is keeping track,” Lagunes said. “A nefarious-minded person could produce whatever they wanted without input (from the government).”

He said the lack of environmental testing because of the shutdown has taken the safety net out from under businesses.

Lagunas said his EPA unit, which covers six states, has lost 146 workers in the past year and only hired 16 replacements.

He said the lack of environmental monitoring is personal to him.

U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-9th) tells federal workers about her concerns with the ongoing government shutdown during a roundtable discussion Friday in Chicago. With her are (from left) U.S. Rep. Bill Foster (D-11th), U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and U.S. Rep. Danny Davis (D-7th). (Photo by Kevin Beese/Chronicle Media)

“If anything happens to a member of my family, I will hold the government responsible,” Lagunas said.

Florence Cannon, a senior program specialist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Services program, said nonprofit groups are already feeling the strain of the shutdown as well. She said she went to a local food pantry to monitor the program and also to check out getting assistance herself and found there was a three-hour wait for service.

“We are taxing the system,” Cannon said.

She said a co-worker, who is in need of an organ transplant, continues to deal with the stress of the lingering shutdown.

“The stress makes her getting the transplant less likely,” Cannon said.

Cannon said the irony of being a client of the USDA’s Supplement Nutrition Assistance Program, which provides nutrition assistance to low-income individuals and families, is not lost on her.

“Now I am able to get the benefit that I monitor,” Cannon said.

Veronica Sims, an account executive for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, said that her aging parent rely on her for assistance. She said not having a paycheck is affecting her ability to help her parents with co-payments for their needed medicine and other things.

Mike Mikulka, (center), a senior environmental engineer with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and president of American Federation of Government Employees Local 704, tells Illinois congressional Democrats that federal employees simply want to get back to work. (Photo by Kevin Beese/Chronicle Media)

Sims said that without an end to the shutdown soon, people who rely on the government for housing assistance could soon be seeing eviction notices.

“Tenants could be in jeopardy,” Sims said, noting that landlords may have no choice than to kick seniors, disabled individuals and others to the curb because of a lack of rent payments. “Housing is a need. People need safe housing.”

Dervin of Community Futures said the nation’s financial markets are at risk during the shutdown because watchdogs are not on the clock.

“We are susceptible to financial crimes right now,” Dervin said. “There is no one making sure we are not at the beginning of a financial crisis.”

New Congresswoman Lauren Underwood (D-14th) said steps have to be taken now to ensure that the government reopens as soon as possible.

“We cannot allow the federal government to be held hostage,” Underwood said.