Federal employees in Minnesota feel shutdown pain

Jane Nygaard
Jane Nygaard staples together picket-style signs to protest the shutdown that has put thousands of people she represents in Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska and the Dakotas out of work. Nygaard is the national vice president of the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents workers in Veteran's Administration hospitals, border security, food inspection and airline passenger screening.
MPR Photo/Mark Zdechlik

Jane Nygaard was busy Tuesday morning stapling picket-style signs to protest the federal government shutdown that has put thousands of people out of work.

As national vice president of the American Federation of Government Employees, Nygaard represents government employees in Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska and the Dakotas. Many of the union's members do work in Veteran's Administration hospitals. Others guard the nation's borders, inspect food, and screen airline passengers.

Many of those jobs will continue to be done during the shutdown, but others won't — and those whose jobs are classified as essential won't be paid until the shutdown is over.

"People are outraged," Nygaard said. "I think it's ridiculous."

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The biggest effect of the federal government shutdown will be felt by government employees. In Minnesota as many as 19,000 people work for the federal government. Many are coming to terms with the reality that they may not be working for a while - or that they may be working without pay.

Nygaard said most of her members likely blame tea-party Republicans in the House of Representatives for the shutdown, which she said is the result of their obsession with dismantling the Affordable Care Act.

"They had a chance," she said. "If they didn't want Obamacare they could have elected Romney as president, but they didn't do that. The American public didn't do that."

Nygaard is still trying to determine how many federal employees in Minnesota were sent home because of the shutdown. She estimated that about four of every 10 workers who don't work for the U.S. Postal Service were furloughed.

About a dozen of those furloughed employees and supporters held signs on a highway overpass just west of Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.

The civilian workers were from the nearby Minneapolis-St. Paul Air Reserve Station, where the 934th Airlift Wing is stationed. The National Guard furloughed roughly 1,200 technicians in the state because of the shutdown.

Dusty Hawkins
Furloughed electrician Dusty Hawkins, 44, of Chanhassen, Minn., says "We have a bunch of politicians that now are using political grandstanding and using us as pawns." Hawkins said he has worked at the station for four years and that he will have little choice but to look for a new job if the shutdown drags on.
MPR Photo/Mark Zdechlik

"What do I make of all of this?" asked furloughed electrician Dusty Hawkins."We have a bunch of politicians that now are using political grandstanding and using us as pawns."

Hawkins, 44, of Chanhassen, has worked at the station for four years. He said he'll have little choice but to look for a new job if the shutdown drags on. He blames tea party Republicans for the shutdown.

William Pool, the chief engineer at the station blames all of Congress — Democrats and Republicans.

"They're childish," he said. "They're acting childish."

Pool, 57, said he's worked for the federal government for nearly 40 years — since he served in Vietnam. During the last shutdown 17 years ago, his job was deemed "essential," so he still reported to work for the three weeks the government was closed.

This time he is considered a non-essential employee, and he's not happy.

William Pool
William Pool, 57, is the chief engineer at the Minneapolis-St. Paul Air Reserve Station. He blames the federal shutdown on all of Congress -- Democrats and Republicans. "They're childish. They're acting childish," Pool said.
MPR Photo/Mark Zdechlik

Besides the furlough, Pool had to take mandatory time off without pay because of automatic across-the-board budget cuts aimed at reducing federal spending. He also has endured a few years of frozen wages.

"I think they could have found an easier way to do this that didn't affect the federal employees," Pool said. "I wish our government, that Congress and [the] Senate would get together and work things out without a government shutdown."

Pool, who plans to do volunteer work during the shutdown, said he has savings he can draw on. He said some of his younger colleagues are really worried about how they'll make ends meet without paychecks.

"They're scared to death," he said. "I've had many of them ask me this morning — 'what should I do?'"

The furloughed workers weren't the only people on the bridge protesting the shutdown. A couple of their union brethren who remain on-the-job in "essential" positions held signs along side of them.

Union protest
Federal workers and members of AFGE hold signs on the 34th Avenue overpass of Highway 62, to draw attention to how federal workers will be affected by the government shutdown, Tuesday, Oct. 1, 2013, in Minneapolis. Many employees classified as nonessential have been idled by the partial federal government shutdown that began early Tuesday. It's not clear how many of the estimated 18,000 federal employees in the state have been sidelined, and it's anyone's guess how long the shutdown will last.
AP Photo/The Star Tribune, Glen Stubbe

VA nurse Teresa Cappecchi, another member of the American Federation of Government Employees, said it is large enough to apply a lot of pressure on Congress in hopes of getting the stalemate over the continuing resolution resolved.

"There's a lot of us," she said. "AFGE has over 600,000 members, so if we all band together we can make a huge statement and if all their friends and family come together we would have most of the workforce out here fighting for everyone."

Based on past shutdowns, furloughed workers expect to be paid the wages they will lose during the shutdown once the budget battle is resolved. That's what happened last time, but Nygaard fears Congress may take a different route this time around.

"We're under sequestration," she said. "Many people [in Congress] might just say, 'Well here, this is a good furlough; let's just not pay anybody back.'"

Nygaard said union members and their supporters expect to hold several rallies to try to draw as much attention as possible to their side of the budget battle.