On lands preserved for wildlife, no refuge from the shutdown
Other worries could wait. Sending a thinking-of-you card to Bob Schmidt, who defines the volunteer nature of the Friends of Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge, was the first order of business Wednesday morning when the directors of the group held their monthly meeting.
That session was held in exile from the protected lands where, for a good portion of his life, Schmidt put his heart and soul. The Friends gathered in a conference room at Shelby Town Hall in Orleans County, 10 miles from where they normally meet.
Photos of many famous Washington, D.C., landmarks adorn those walls in Shelby, providing a fitting if frustrating backdrop for the meeting. The government shutdown in Washington has left the refuge headquarters locked and off-limits to the taxpaying public, meaning the Friends had to hunt down a different place to gather.
More than ever, in a discouraging time, they see Schmidt as a paragon of American selflessness. At 88, the retired steamfitter from Lockport has given almost 30,000 volunteer hours to the refuge, the equivalent of roughly 750 weeks – or 14 years – of full-time work. He did it for nothing because, as his wife, Catherine, puts it, “He loves nature and always did.”
Schmidt is a bird guy, and there are few places in all of upstate that match Iroquois as a haven for migrating birds. In appreciation, for decades,
ed in opposition to the shutdown, the lockout and their forced labor without pay,” said Cox, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents 700,000 federal employees, including those affected by the shutdown at the Transportation Security Administration, Census Bureau and federal prisons. “They want to be back providing vitally important services to their fellow Americans and they want to be paid.”
Some 420,000 federal employees nationwide have been on furlough since the shutdown began on Dec. 22. Meanwhile, 380,000 personnel who were deemed essential kept on working without pay.
It’s hard to say exactly how many of those furloughed and unpaid employees are in Buffalo. The Office of Personnel Management, which keeps track of such things, is shut down, its website largely inoperative.
The most recent employment data to be found elsewhere comes from 2014, from a public affairs firm called Eye on Washington. Based on Office of Personnel Management data, the Eye on Washington report said 925 people worked for the Treasury Department in Erie County at the time, with the vast majority of them at the large local IRS operation. Another 155 worked for the Social Security Administration, another agency where many workers are furloughed now.
Separately, the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority – which works with several federal agencies – said 264 people work locally for the Transportation Security Administration. Another 172 work for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, while 29 work for the Federal Aviation Administration. Most of the employees at those agencies are considered essential and are working without pay.
Adding all those numbers up – in what is admittedly a rough count – it’s likely that more than 1,500 Buffalo-area federal workers are either furloughed or working without pay because of the shutdown.
As one of the furloughed workers, Hennessey wishes it weren’t so. She said she enjoys her job working on international tax issues in the Buffalo IRS office and that she wants to get back at it rather than sitting around and worrying about the shutdown.
“You start out your day and say you’re not going to think about it, but no matter what, something will trigger it,” she said.
She said the family is trying to not spend a lot of money, given that no one knows exactly how long the shutdown will continue.
With that same thought in mind, the Consumer Credit Counseling Service of Buffalo announced last week that it is offering free financial and credit counseling to federal employees who have been affected by the shutdown.
“We want to encourage folks to be proactive,” said Noelle Carter, the agency’s president and CEO. Even for federal employees who think they can muddle through the shutdown, “it can’t hurt to get a financial checkup,” she said.
Of course, some feds might be too busy for a financial checkup despite the shutdown. That’s because they are still working – without pay.
“At our weather service, our members are very dedicated,” said Kirk Apffel, union steward for the National Weather Service Employees Organization, where 19 of the 20 local workers are working without pay. “People are still coming to work if at all possible.”
That seems to be the case with local TSA agents and Customs agents as well.
While lines at the Buffalo Niagara International Airport were unusually long one day over the holidays, there has been no sign that TSA agents have stopped coming to work in frustration as the shutdown has dragged on, said William R. Vanacek, the airport’s director of aviation.
Similarly, there has been no disruption of customs operations at the Peace Bridge, said Ron Rienas, general manager of the Buffalo and Fort Erie Public Bridge Authority. Rienas noted, though, that customers who want to apply for the Nexus trusted traveler program can’t do so now, just because the unpaid Customs and Border Protection agents are focusing only on essential tasks.
Unpaid federal workers face a lot of frustration.
“The big problem most of us face is not knowing when the next paycheck will come,” said Apffel, who is married but has no children. “That makes financial planning very difficult.”
The other problem federal workers face, of course, is a federal government that isn’t working for them.
“We have various political views running the whole spectrum” at the local weather service operation, said Apffel, 42, of Williamsville. “But you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who thinks the shutdown is a good idea.”