Federal workers feel pain of furlough
Even mealtime ref lects a new sense of concern
Shannon Hennessey’s 8-yearold son, Patrick, interrupted dinner recently with the kind of question that furloughed and unpaid federal workers nationwide might hear from their children, too.
“Last week we had soup for dinner, and my son asked if it was because we didn’t have money,” said Hennessey, 42, of Williamsville.
Both Hennessey and her husband, Sean Hennessey, work at the Internal Revenue Service in Buffalo and have been on furlough since the start of the nation’s longest government shutdown on Dec. 22.
And while money wasn’t the reason the Hennesseys ate soup that night, the family and hundreds of others in Buffalo are joining thousands nationwide in feeling a financial pinch they never expected.
All of that because President Trump wants to build a wall at the southern border and Democrats won’t agree.
The Hennesseys have savings that they can use through the shutdown, but they had to rearrange the automatic car payment deductions that normally come out of their paychecks and otherwise shift around funds to make sure their bills get paid.
Other “feds” aren’t so lucky. Some across the nation are selling belongings on Craigslist to get by. And to hear J. David Cox Sr., who heads the largest union representing federal employees, they want to get back to work.
“With the exception of a tiny handful, federal workers are unit-
Schmidt provided a little bit of everything.
He mowed observation areas and worked along the trails. He also helped his buddy, Carl Zenger, an 80-year-old volunteer with similar passion, in caring for the wood duck and bluebird boxes that make the 10,800-acre refuge one of the premier spots in New York for easily viewing the elusive state bird.
From time to time, they would come across an Eastern screech owl in a wood duck box, band it, then set it free.
Schmidt, renowned for his resilience and vitality, is now in hospice care for lung cancer. At the meeting, Zenger gave a quiet update on his friend and promised to hand-deliver the card. In a telephone conversation afterward, Catherine Schmidt said the gesture means a lot to her husband, though the news that would best lift his spirits goes back to the same headache that pushed the meeting out to Shelby.
Schmidt, his wife said, wants the shutdown to end.
“He’s worried about his birds,” Catherine said.
The Friends would much prefer to meet at the Casey Road administration building. From its front door, they can look across the tall grass and wetlands of the Alabama swamps toward a forest where bald eagles, their patterns changed by an unusually warm winter, have stayed put rather than wandering afield in search of food.
The national symbol, heedless of a shutdown, is not going anyplace.
As for the refuge, its headquarters is shuttered. While refuge manager Tom Roster has been coming in, unpaid, to make sure of fundamental safety and maintenance issues, his three-person staff is home without pay. Dozens of staff members from the Lower Great Lakes Fish and Wildlife Conservation office are in the same boat, while three state biologists and technicians who use the building have been forced to look elsewhere to do their jobs.
A notice on the locked door informs visitors of the federal shutdown, caused by an impasse between President Trump and Congress over Trump’s demand for billions of dollars to complete a wall along the Mexican border.
The roughly 120 members of the friends include men and women whose shared love for conservation somehow bridges a sprawling range of political views and passions. At the meeting, the directors carefully avoided taking sides, choosing instead to agree on one central point:
The shutdown, if it goes on much longer, could start doing real damage at Iroquois, a message they intend to capture in a letter they want Washington lawmakers to see.
“Probably the longer it goes,” Zenger said, “the more will fall off the table.”
The immediate and obvious issue is that visitors walking onto the territory right now are doing it without any supervisory presence, and thus at their own risk. The lack of heavy snow has been a lucky break, because no workers are around to clear the hiking trails or parking lots, when needed.
To the Friends, the first concern is the day-to-day well-being of staff members who are going without pay. As for the mission of the volunteers, even simple tasks are abruptly complicated: Ann Fourtner, a member since the Friends group was founded almost 20 years ago, has worked out a time when Roster can reach out the door to pass along any mail the group receives.
The locked building also cuts off access to materials Zenger uses to construct, clean or repair bluebird or martin houses, a never-ending mission that could eventually diminish those populations, if left undone. The members expect that a “Build a Toadhouse” program set for children will not happen, due to the shutdown. The gift shop, a central way of raising money, is closed.
“If that building were open, we’d be out there working,” said Pete Warn, 80, an Air Force retiree who fell in love with the swamps as a child when his mother brought him to see vast flocks of migrating geese. “This is just a terrible time of year for our planning to be curtailed.”
Their annual goal is raising awareness of what they see as an extraordinary, yet too-oftenoverlooked, regional jewel. They were already forced to cancel one birdwatching walk, and their growing fear involves the fate of “Spring into Nature,” a pivotal April celebration that often attracts more than 1,000 visitors and serves as a community liftoff in the spring.
In the end, they simply find something deeply maddening in a government-imposed lack of access to a place whose purpose is a brilliant affirmation of democracy.
“These are lands that belong to us,” said Celeste Morien, a retired teacher and the president of the Friends who paid for seed from her own pocket, then poured it Thursday into bird feeders at Iroquois.
From the time she was a child, she said, she saw the entire national wildlife refuge system – with its roots in the fierce conservation philosophy of New York’s Teddy Roosevelt – as a vibrant symbol of America.
She hates to think we now use that symbol at our own risk.
Celeste Morien fills bird feeders at the Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge. She is president of the Friends of Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge, but is doing this on her own. Left, signs announce the closing of the visitor center.