Fed­eral work­ers feel pain of fur­lough

Even meal­time ref lects a new sense of con­cern

The Buffalo News - - FRONT PAGE - By Jerry Zrem­ski

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.

Pho­tos by Derek Gee/Buf­falo News

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.

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