Untold stories from government shutdown

While furloughed federal employees are assured they will get back pay following the government’s temporary shutdown, contract workers have no such assurances.

There are about 35 independent contract workers at the National Center for Agricultural Utilization Research in Peoria.

Requesting her name not be used, one long-time worker at the lab tried to be upbeat but said her grown son has assured her she can move in with him and his family if she loses her home.

Not only is her pay lost during the shutdown, she also is uncertain about her health insurance. Her premium is based on the number of hours she works. Finding another job is not easy because employers figure all the furloughed contract workers will return to their regular jobs when the shutdown ends.

Ashley Maness, president of American Federation of Government Employees Local 3247, said she has gone to the Illinois Department of Employment Security to help furloughed workers sign up for unemployment only to be told in some cases their social security numbers had already been used.

“They told us all benefits had been used but the person never applied for the past two to three years,” said Maness who has been at the lab for 15 years and weathered a shutdown in the past.

“But this time, there is more uncertainty,” she said. “These shutdowns and threats are wearing us down.”

A scientist at the lab who met on the condition no name would be used said he expects scientists will start leaving the lab. First President Trump had the lab slated for closure for budget reasons. Now he’s threatening a long-term shutdown. He expects some colleagues will leave for jobs at universities and in the private sector.

He said many scientists are unable to simply stop and restart their research. In some cases, they lose months or more of work and have to start again.

Many private corporations have cut back on their own research and rely more on licensing developments coming out of government labs. That pipeline of new research is jeopardized. Partnering corporations likely are concerned contracts with the scientists will not be upheld.

He added another wrinkle –– as government employees, they are precluded from taking work home, but for many, they feel forced to break that rule because of agreements and collaborations with colleagues in other countries. Not only does this shutdown hurt American research, it hurts foreign scientists collaborating with American scientists in government facilities.

With a hiring freeze at the lab, its internationally acclaimed and irreplaceable culture collection is now maintained by a technician after the scientist in charge retired.

The maintenance person who faces moving in with her son said, “I’m almost paralyzed with stress.”

Clare Howard

Clare Howard is the editor of the Community Word. She can be reached at communityword@yahoo.com

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