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Some workers still unpaid after shutdown, dread what’s next

February 7, 2019
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FILE - In this October 2018 photo provided by Cheryl Inzunza Blum, of Tucson, Ariz., the immigration lawyer on contract with the federal government poses for a photo in Vung Tau, Vietnam. The shutdown motivated Cheryl Inzunza Blum to completely re-evaluate her career. Blum is a lawyer who works on contract representing immigrants facing criminal matters in federal court in Tucson, Arizona. She has not received payment since before the shutdown began. (John Martin Smith/Courtesy of Blum via AP)

Nearly two weeks after the end of the longest government shutdown in U.S history, many federal workers still have not received their back pay or have only gotten a fraction of what they are owed as government agencies struggle with payroll glitches and other delays.

And even as they scramble to catch up on unpaid bills and to repay unemployment benefits, the prospect of another shutdown looms next week.

“President Trump stood in the Rose Garden at the end of the shutdown and said, ‘We will make sure that you guys are paid immediately.’ ... And here it is, it’s almost two weeks later,” said Michael Walter, who works for the U.S. Department of Agriculture food safety inspection service in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, and only got his paycheck Wednesday. He said two co-workers told him they still had received nothing.

The government has been short on details about how many people are still waiting to be paid.

Bradley Bishop, a spokesman for the Office of Management and Budget, said the Trump administration had taken “unprecedented steps to ensure federal employees impacted by the shutdown received back pay within a week.”

“Much opposite of ‘slow and chaotic,’ an overwhelming majority of employees received their pay by Jan. 31,” he said, though he didn’t respond to questions about how many people still hadn’t been paid.

The USDA said in a statement that pay was its top priority, but also did not respond to questions about how many workers were still awaiting paychecks. Asked to confirm that some people hadn’t been paid, USDA spokeswoman Amanda Heitkamp replied, “I’m not sure.”

Donna Zelina’s husband works for the Bureau of Indian Affairs in South Dakota. He has received only a portion of his back pay, and does not expect to be fully paid until Feb. 12. The couple had to drain their savings shortly before the shutdown when both his parents died, leaving them in a precarious financial position.

Zelina said she called her creditors, but they wouldn’t work with her. Her husband’s car loan went into forbearance, causing them to rack up fees.

“I don’t think people really understand what people do in government and just assume that everybody ... makes millions of dollars,” she said.

A spokesman for the Department of Interior, which handles payroll for more than five dozen government offices, did not answer when asked how many workers were due back pay, but said a “small group of employees” had not received anything. Spokesman Russell Newell said others received “interim payments of back pay” that would be made up in the next pay period.

The Census Bureau acknowledged Wednesday that about 850 employees nationwide have yet to receive back pay or have only gotten a fraction of what they’re owed. A spokesman said they expected most of those workers to be paid by Friday.

Other affected agencies include the Federal Aviation Administration, where two unions representing FAA workers said their members had not yet received all of their back pay.

Doug Church of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association said members who worked during the shutdown had not gotten overtime, which he said was a violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act. They also had not received the extra pay they were due for working nights and holidays, he said.

David Verardo, a union local president, said he was still owed $2,000 and estimated that the 1,000 workers his union represents at the National Science Foundation in Alexandria, Virginia, are each due between $1,200 and $3,000 for the two pay periods they missed.

“It’s good that we got back pay at all, but it seems to have been clumsily done. When people ask questions, the answer they get is, ‘We’re doing the best we can,’” said Verardo of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 3403.

Making matters even more confusing, he said payments for things like supplemental health plans and court-ordered alimony and child support were not withheld from paychecks. He said workers were told to pay them on their own, but many didn’t know how to do that and were concerned about possible legal implications.

In addition to the pay delays, workers are struggling with issues like navigating the bureaucracy of paying back unemployment benefits and the looming question of whether there would be another shutdown after Feb. 15.

Trish Binkley, a tax examiner at the Internal Revenue Service in Kansas City, Missouri, is setting aside money, including her tax refund and an emergency loan she got from her credit union, in case of another shutdown.

She received two unemployment checks of $288 each during the shutdown before getting a letter informing her she was ineligible for the benefits — even though she had been told she qualified. Binkley has paid the money back, but worries about another shutdown.

She and others have grown increasingly frustrated at seeing social media posts that downplayed the impact of the shutdown.

“This was not a vacation. Vacations are supposed to be fun and relaxing. You have money to go do fun things or whatever. This was one of the most stressful periods of my life,” Binkley said.

The shutdown motivated Cheryl Inzunza Blum to re-evaluate her career as a government contract lawyer representing immigrants in federal court in Tucson, Arizona. She has not been paid since before the shutdown began.

Blum realized she must diversify her solo law practice and plans to do more personal injury work. For the long term, she is making a bigger change. She enrolled in an online course in international relations at Harvard Extension School to educate herself on what drives migration, and hopes to work on solutions to the issues surrounding immigration.

“I did it because I don’t want to go through this again,” she said. “I want to carve out another career, I really do.”

Among the groups hardest hit by the shutdown are contract workers who were kept home and who are not entitled to back pay.

The shutdown affected some 2,000 people with disabilities who got their government contract jobs with help from the nonprofit SourceAmerica, according to John Kelly, its vice president of government affairs and public policy.

Nearly 60 percent still had not been called back to their jobs as of Wednesday.

It’s been a difficult time for those workers, who often have a hard time finding a job in the first place, Kelly said. Their jobs include custodial and mailroom work at agencies like NASA, the Coast Guard and the Department of the Interior, he said.

The shutdown has also damaged some workers’ credit scores.

Pearl Fraley, of Greenville, North Carolina, who works for the food safety inspection service, had to work unpaid through the shutdown and used credit cards to get by. Fraley asked her landlord to waive the late fees on her rent, but has not heard back. She said her car’s heater broke during the shutdown, and she hasn’t had the money to get it fixed.

She’s dreading another possible shutdown.

“I don’t know if we can do this a second time,” she said.

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Associated Press writer Juliet Linderman in Washington contributed to this report.

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