“There’s no reimbursement for this interview, is there, possibly?”
Informed that the Jewish Exponent does not pay for interviews, the furloughed federal employee, who asked to remain nameless, said that she understood. “Well,” she said, “you can certainly hear where I’m coming from.”
About 380,000 federal employees remain on unpaid leave during what is now the longest government shutdown in U.S. history. It began on Dec. 22 after negotiations on the budget for the 2019 fiscal year were held up by disagreements between House Democrats and President Donald Trump over funding for a wall to be built along the U.S.-Mexico border. Trump has said that he was prepared to wait “months, or even years” for Democrats to relent. As of now, there doesn’t seem to be an end in sight.
Sidney Ozer, 61, grew up on West Oak Lane and has been an EPA employee in Philadelphia since 1987, one of 800,000 furloughed federal workers. He’s thankful that his savings and his relatively high pay grade have given him a cushion with which to absorb the blow of receiving a half-paycheck for the last pay period, but he knows he’s an outlier in that respect.
“I’m a little bit older, and I happen to have some savings, so the immediate impact is not there,” he said. However, “if you’re making $50,000 a year as a single mother, it’s gonna be a very difficult thing for you to not have your paycheck come in on Friday.”
What’s more distressing for him is the work left undone. As a contracting officer, Ozer issues contracts to evaluate the level of contamination at hazardous Superfund waste sites in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware, Virginia, West Virginia and Washington, D.C. Pennsylvania alone, home to 92 of the 1,338 total Superfund sites in the country, requires an inordinate amount of attention from the EPA.
“It feels very bad,” said Ozer, “because we’re not able to protect the health and welfare of the people of the mid-Atlantic states and across the country.”
Beyond the immediate impact of letting hazardous waste sites fester without constant attention, Ozer said, he worries about the impact that the shutdown will have on the federal government’s ability to attract labor to its ranks in the future.
“People come to the federal government because we want to serve, we want to protect public health and the environment. But you’re going to question it if you don’t have the security of knowing that, y’know, I’ll be able to feed my family, pay the rent, send my kids to school, etc.,” he said.
In the meantime, he said, all he can do is support the Local Federation of Federal Employees 3631, which rallied at Independence Hall on Jan. 8 and at the AFL-CIO building in D.C. on Jan. 10 in concert with more than 30 other unions affected by the shutdown.
Mindy Snoparsky, 62, has been an EPA hydrogeologist for 32 years, also working in the Superfund program. The Roxborough native intended to take a vacation beginning on Dec. 24, one that would’ve been paid. Now, she said, she’s off of work, but without compensation. (Last week, Congress and the president agreed to give federal employees back pay from the beginning of the shutdown, but the government would have to end the shutdown first.)
Snoparsky’s ability to help out on student loans for her son, a translator and cybersecurity expert living in Israel, is compromised, and she had to ask her synagogue to defer payment of dues. Like Ozer, she’s worried about the work left undone.
“It’s not easy to just go back in and pick up where you left off,” she said.
She looks forward to returning to her post if and when the issues surrounding the shutdown are resolved; she enjoys the regulatory aspect of her work at the EPA, and while she’s worked in private industry before, it’s just not for her anymore.
“I don’t think the public understands what the service is that we provide,” Snoparsky said, “and they just think, ‘Ah, they’ll get paid, what’s the big deal?’”
In the meantime, she’s trying to keep busy. She went to the union rally at Independence Hall, for one. There’s also her new hobby.
“Talking to reporters,” she laughed. l
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