Impasse Is Straining Federal Workers’ Budgets Continuing Government Stare-Down Leaves Local Employees With Skimpy Paychecks

Bruce Hawkins doesn’t understand how Congress and President Clinton have let their disagreement over the federal budget go this long.

But because they have, Hawkins’ paycheck for being a police officer at Spokane’s Veterans Affairs Medical Center was about one-third its usual size Tuesday.

It doesn’t seem fair that the much larger paychecks for Congress and the president will be their normal size, said Hawkins, a 19-year VA employee with a wife and six children to feed. Or that he’ll have to borrow money from his credit union to cover what the federal government owes him until the budget impasse is resolved.

But he doesn’t dwell on that.

“Nothing I can do about it anyway - until the time comes for elections,” Hawkins said. He didn’t want to say how it may affect his vote in November.

Hawkins is in the same position as workers for many federal departments and agencies, such as the Department of Veterans Affairs, Social Security, the Bureau of Mines and the Forest Service. Normally paid at the beginning and at the middle of each month for the previous two weeks’ work, they are receiving checks this week that cover only part of the pay they earned in late December.

The rest will come later, when the budget impasse is settled. Federal workers still say “when,” not “if,” the impasse is settled.

“Everyone’s trusting that will happen,” said Guillermo Rubio, a VA physician who paused between seeing veterans at the medical center’s outpatient facility. “The uncertainty is the time delay.”

Jan Liane, a nurse and coordinator at the medical center’s same-day surgery center, doubts that the politicians in Washington, D.C., have any idea what the uncertainty and the financial stress is doing to federal workers. The labeling of some workers “non-essential,” and the jokes that designation spawns, was another slap in the face to some workers, she said.

“I can understand them wanting to balance the budget. I want that, too,” said Gloria Navarro-Geiger, a secretary at the VA Medical Center. “But at the same time, I don’t think that Medicare and Medicaid can be ‘golden cows’ that you can’t touch. Some of these other programs are necessities, too, and they’re getting cut.”

The veterans’ hospital, which has more than 400 federal workers, has set up several programs to assist employees through the budget stalemate. Federal credit unions around Spokane are offering low-interest loans to cover the portions of paychecks that are being held back.

The medical center’s store will take post-dated checks for basic food items and sundries. The employees’ association is setting up a food bank after receiving some canned goods and produce from a local supermarket. The National Federation of Federal Employees Local 1641 will tap into its emergency fund for emergency grants.

“People can pay it back later if they can,” said Nancy Jordan, treasurer of the local union.

Right now, employees are willing to take Congress’ word that they will eventually be paid for all the work that they perform. There’s been no talk of work stoppages or walkouts, said Ron Porzio, the center’s associate director.

“Most people are here for the veterans,” said Jordan. “But the frustration is getting higher. They (Congress) are upsetting a lot of lives.”

The budget stalemate is not affecting payments to the recipients of government services, agency officials are quick to emphasize.

VA pensions and disability checks were sent out on time.

Social Security retirement, disability and survivors checks should be in the mailbox or directly deposited into bank accounts today. That’s about 76,100 people in five Eastern Washington counties and another 28,800 in North Idaho, said Gail Whitehead of the Spokane Social Security office.

The Spokane field office for the nation’s pension system is fully staffed during this budget stalemate, which is a switch from the November shutdown that placed most of them on furlough, Whitehead said.

But a total of 60 workers in Spokane and Coeur d’Alene will be making do with smaller paychecks for a while.

“It’s touch-and-go for some of our employees,” Whitehead said. “We have bills to pay just like everybody else.”

The budget impasse - and the reduced paychecks - are chipping away at the security government workers have long felt about their jobs.

“It’s very unnerving. This has always been a secure job,” said Whitehead, who has worked for the government for 30 years. “Morale is bad.”

Most federal employees are trusting that the impasse will be broken eventually because to do otherwise, Hawkins said, is to suggest the government will fall apart.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo

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