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Retirees concerned about shutdown's strain on current workers

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By Chris Day
Multimedia Editor

Saturday, January 12, 2019

Two retired federal employees say that while they never experienced a similar government shutdown during their careers, they understand the strain it is putting on workers currently not being paid. 

On Friday, Day 21 of the partial government shutdown, Audrey Shields and James Sears discussed the shutdown while gathered for a meeting of the local chapter of National Active and Retired Federal Employees.  

“This shouldn’t be happening in America,” said Shields, who is the chapter’s treasury secretary. “If you work you should be able to get paid.”

Shields, 90, retired in 1982 after a nearly 30-year career as a cartographer with the U.S. Geological Survey, an agency of the U.S. Department of Interior.  

Sears, of Gates County, retired in the early 1990s after a long career at the Norfolk Naval Shipyard in Portsmouth, Virginia. 

“I really do sympathize with those workers out on furloughs,” said Sears, the chapter’s president. “That’s got to be a hardship. I really think you ought not play with folks’ livelihood.”  

Friday was supposed to have been a payday for the roughly 800,000 federal employees, a number that includes approximately 1,200 workers at the Aviation Logistics Center at U.S. Coast Guard Base Elizabeth City. The shutdown began before Christmas after Republicans and Democrats failed to reach a budget deal on President Trump’s request for an extra $5.7 billion to build a wall along the nation’s southern border with Mexico. 

Referring to the Berlin Wall, which was toppled in 1989, Shields questioned the need for the border wall.

“What eventually happened to that wall?” she asked, about the Berlin Wall. “It got torn down.”

Like many have argued, Shields, too, said the United States is a nation founded by immigrants seeking a better life. 

“So, why are we so gung-ho to keep people out?” she asked. “It’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever seen.”

That $5 billion could be better spent elsewhere, she said, and Sears agreed. 

“There’s more pressing needs,” he said. 

Shields said if she could speak to out-of-work employees she’d give two recommendations. 

“First, you’re going to have to start praying,” she said, and second, furloughed employees must remember that nothing lasts forever and that the shutdown will end.

“But it’s going to make a hardship for you,” she said. “Ask for help if you need it. Somebody will give you a helping hand.”

Shields also expressed concern for some federal employees, particular those working under contract, that even when the shutdown ends may not be eligible to receive back pay they earned while furloughed. 

“I’m hoping and praying,” she said. “This is no way to run a country. Other countries are laughing at America.”

Sears wondered about the effects that so many furloughed workers, such as food inspectors, could have on public safety. 

“That impacts all of us,” he said, using the recent nationwide recall of romaine lettuce as an example. 

Shields and Sears both found laughable a recent Coast Guard “tip sheet” that recommended furloughed civilian employees hold garage sales to help make ends meet. 

“That’s not enough to keep you afloat,” said Shields, referring to the five-page tip sheet posted online Wednesday by the Coast Guard Support Program, which provides employee assistance. The Washington Post first reported the tip sheet and the Coast Guard pulled the document after The Post inquired about it.  

Shields and Sears also agreed that if a similar shutdown had happened during their careers it would have been detrimental to their families.  

“Two weeks without a check? I’d be in trouble,” Sears said, who reiterated his concern for those currently out of work. “I really, really do sympathize with those people.”

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