Area government workers frustrated by shutdown

Plenty of ‘real work’ isn’t getting done, they say

October 06, 2013

Mike Mikulka, a senior environmental engineer for the EPA, does yard work at his home in Crystal Lake while the governement shutdown keeps him out of work.

Mike Mikulka, a senior environmental engineer for the EPA, does yard work at his home in Crystal Lake while the governement shutdown keeps him out of work. (Keri Wiginton, Chicago Tribune)

Mike Mikulka was supposed to spend last week in Marinette, Wis., overseeing a $110 million project to clean up the Menomonee River, which is contaminated with arsenic.

An environmental engineer in the Chicago office of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Mikulka never made it to the site. He was sent home from work Tuesday, with a phone number to call to find out when he could return. The river cleanup, which is being handled by a private company, continued without him.

“Basically, it’s being done without (EPA) oversight,” Mikulka said.

Other furloughed workers from the Chicago area are describing similar situations caused by the partial shutdown of the federal government, in which an estimated 800,000 people nationwide were told to set aside their work and go home. A House measure passed Saturday would give the workers back pay once the government reopens. It is expected to clear the Senate and be signed by the president.

Those put on furlough were deemed nonessential to the federal government’s mission to protect life and property. But as the shutdown stretches on, some workers warn, their absence at key oversight posts could have far-reaching consequences for the environment and public health.

“We’re the watchdog, we’re the ones out there protecting human health and the environment,” said John O’Grady, a union representative at Chicago’s EPA office. “If we’re not out there, who is? It’s just a matter of time before something stupid happens.”

With furloughs affecting agencies ranging from the Labor Department to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, investigations have been put on hold, training programs have been canceled, food facilities have gone uninspected and patients have been turned away from clinical research trials. Federal workers could spend weeks or months playing catch-up once they’re allowed to return to work.

Mikulka had hoped in the early days of the shutdown that lawmakers in Washington would reach a deal that would allow him to get back to work by this coming Tuesday, in time to finalize plans with private contractors for a second round of dredging at the river.

That effort could clean the river enough to take it off the EPA’s list of areas of concern, Mikulka said.

“That probably won’t happen now because the contractor … they need a job too,” he said. “They can’t be waiting around for the government to get its act together.”

Without a second dredging, it will take about 10 years for the river to clean itself naturally, he said.

Travel restrictions resulting from the shutdown also meant that officials from key public health agencies were notably absent at an annual meeting last week of infectious disease specialists, said Emily Landon, an epidemiologist at University of Chicago Medicine. Dozens of doctors from Chicago-area hospitals had traveled to San Francisco for the meeting, which typically features briefings from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Food and Drug Administration and the National Institutes of Health, Landon said.

“This is a big opportunity for us to hear the CDC tell us firsthand what they’re doing about (new viruses),” Landon said. “Those are things that we count on, coming to these meetings and hearing from the CDC.”

At Rush University Medical Center, doctors who spent months drafting applications for grants to conduct research projects on childhood asthma, post-traumatic stress disorder in women and other research topics have had to hold off on submitting those applications because the federal staff that would process them has been furloughed, said James Mulshine, vice president of university affairs and associate provost for research at Rush.

The shutdown could delay funding for those projects by five months, Mulshine said.

“Young investigators especially are hit hard by this,” he said. “Imagine you’ve been working 18-hour days the last 100 days to get this ready, and now you’re looking at this happening.”

Furloughs at the Food and Drug Administration put a halt to research projects at the Illinois Institute of Technology’s Institute for Food Safety & Health, said Robert Brackett, the institute’s director. The institute partners with the FDA on food safety studies, including research into the safety of dry ingredients in foods, which have been a source of recent foodborne illness outbreaks.

“Our staff is still doing what they can, as much as they can, but if (a project) involves an FDA researcher or their technicians … the research has come to a stop,” Brackett said.

Such interruptions in experiments can force researchers to start over when funding is restored, Brackett said.

Bill Long, an investigator in the Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division, said the shutdown had forced furloughs of the workers who enforce federal labor laws in Chicago. It’s an office that returned at least $5 million in wages to workers last fiscal year, he said.

“That’s just one example of the real work we do,” Long said.

Workers lamented the archaic shutdown rules that not only forced them out of their offices but also barred them from doing any work from home.

“I am not even supposed to think about work,” said Michael Sprinker, an instructor for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, who was eager to get back to his job at an OSHA training institute in Arlington Heights preparing materials for courses on chemical spills. Sprinker said the educational work he does for the workplace safety agency has hidden but profoundly important benefits for people in hazardous work environments.

“It’s hard to count the folks that aren’t hurt because of our work,” Sprinker said.

Frances Shields-Jackson said the shutdown came at the best time possible for her department of roughly 40 people at the EPA on the South Side of Chicago. Grants that her department sends out to organizations like nonprofits and Native American tribes were issued Sept. 30 for the next fiscal year.

Shields-Jackson’s main concern, however, is how she will take care of herself. Furloughed hours will be deducted from her next paycheck. In the last government shutdown in 1995, she received back pay after the furlough.

“The logistics of the economy were different back then,” she said. “We were told that we could file for unemployment, but I’m hoping that it doesn’t go that far.”

Brent Barron, president of American Federation of Government Employees Local 648, was on the list of exempted employees at the Labor Department who must come in to work. He issues federal workers compensation payments, which are not being interrupted.

“We’re not getting paid to pay people who aren’t working,” Barron said. “As insane as this whole thing is, that is the cherry on top of the whole sundae.”

Barron is spending his after-work hours arranging his finances in anticipation of his next paycheck.

“My next check is going to be a short check,” Barron said. “I have bills to be paid. We are adjusting our mortgages. We are calling our creditors to see if we can get the payments skipped or waived or whatever for the short term, and then arranging to borrow against our retirement plans.”

He is trying to get the workers in his union to not treat their forced furloughs as a vacation, to “not treat this so much as I’m going down to get my nails done, get a haircut. I’m cleaning up my yard or cleaning out my closet.”

Instead, he said, they must remind people why the work they do is important.

“This hasn’t hit people. They’re treating this like a snow day,” Barron said. “When the check hits on the 14th and we’re still out and we’re still on a shutdown, that’s when they’re going to start fielding all the calls from very angry employees saying, ‘How can we let this keep on going?'”

kgeiger@tribune.com

mmrodriguez@tribune.com

 

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