On lands pre­served for wildlife, no refuge from the shut­down

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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.”

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