‘A daily struggle’: Veterans in federal workforce feel effects of government shutdown

A sign announcing closure of the National Archives due to a partial government shutdown is displayed on Dec. 24, 2018 in Washington, D.C.


By NIKKI WENTLING | STARS AND STRIPES Published: January 9, 2019

WASHINGTON — Army veteran David Shanley-Dillman, a project leader with the U.S. Forest Service in rural Michigan, just wants to get back to work.

The 53-year-old has been furloughed since Dec. 22 because of the partial government shutdown that has closed several federal agencies. He and his wife have depleted their savings, are living off credit cards and plan to ask family members to borrow money for their mortgage.

“It’s tough. It’s kind of dire,” Shanley-Dillman said Wednesday. “We’re trying to be very conservative about what we pay. We’re wondering which bills we should pay and which ones we should wait with and just take the late fees. It’s not good.”

On Wednesday, the shutdown entered its 19th day, making it the second-longest in U.S. history.

It started when President Donald Trump and congressional Democrats hit an impasse over funding for border security, specifically Trump’s request for $5.7 billion to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border.

Trump and Democratic leaders addressed the nation on television Tuesday night, but a resolution wasn’t in sight as of Wednesday. Trump declared last week that he could keep parts of the government shut down for “months or even years.”

Meanwhile, about 800,000 federal workers are going without pay — and thousands of them are veterans. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., made that point at a news conference Wednesday with furloughed workers.

“Our veterans are very adversely affected by this,” she said. “If we want to support our veterans, we will not hurt their credit rating. That’s what missing a mortgage, a rental payment, a car payment and the rest does to everyone’s credit rating.”

The Office of Personnel Management tracks the number of veterans employed by each government agency. Based on its data, about 155,000 veterans work at the agencies affected by the shutdown. Of those veterans, nearly 50,000 have a Department of Veterans Affairs disability rating.

The biggest employers of veterans affected by the shutdown are the Department of Homeland Security, with more than 53,000, and the Department of Justice, with more than 29,000, according to the data. The Department of Transportation employs more than 20,000 veterans.

The data, which is the latest available, is from fiscal year 2016. It shows a 5 percent increase in veterans in the federal workforce since 2009, when former President Barack Obama ordered the Veterans Employment Initiative to bring on more employees with prior military service.

While veterans are less than 10 percent of the adult population in the United States, they make up 31 percent of the federal workforce. That amounts to more than 635,000 federal employees.

Kayla Williams, director of the military, veterans and society program at the Center for a New American Security, a Washington think tank, previously directed the VA’s Center for Women Veterans. Based on a VA report, 34.2 percent of women veterans worked in federal, state and local government, she said.

“To me, this does show that veterans are disproportionately represented in government, in part that could be because many people who served in the military do believe in public service and could be drawn to continue to serve once they become veterans,” Williams said.

That’s true for Shanley-Dillman, who grew up in a family of servicemembers and law enforcement personnel that steered him toward public service.

He served as a military policeman from 1987 to 1990, then went to work for the state of Indiana. He’s been employed by the Forest Service for 17 years at Huron-Manistee National Forests, where he maintains a program to sell timber.

In recent years, with more threats of government shutdowns, he’s felt more stress and angst. Though Shanley-Dillman felt called into public service, he’s recently discouraged young people from careers in the federal government, he said.

He also struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder, making the uncertainty surrounding this shutdown harder to handle.

“One of the biggest things for a veteran to be successful in the civilian world is a stable job,” Shanley-Dillman said. “It adds more stress on someone that’s already stressed all of the time, anyway.”

Though his family is being forced to borrow money to pay bills, Shanley-Dillman said he’s in a better position than some of his fellow Forest Service employees. He’s eking by, while others are “not keeping their heads above water,” he said.

“It’s a daily struggle. They’re hurting really, really bad, and our vets, I think, are hurting a little more,” he said. “It’s disingenuous to want to serve your country, then your country falls out from beneath you.”

During a bill signing ceremony at the White House on Wednesday, Trump praised federal workers as “terrific patriots,” and insisted they supported his decision to shut down the government to hold out for border wall funding.

“So many of those people are saying, ‘It’s very hard for me. It’s very hard for my family. But Mr. President, you’re doing the right thing,” Trump claimed.

That’s not true for Shanley-Dillman or his coworkers, he said.

“Wall or no wall, I don’t care,” Shanley-Dillman said. “Most of the folks I know don’t care if there’s a wall or not. Sure, yeah, we need more money for border security, but there are processes to do that instead of shutting down the government.”

Ed Canales, an Army veteran who served during Desert Storm and retired from the Federal Bureau of Prisons, also emphatically disagreed with Trump on that point.

Canales, 52, now works as a veteran liaison officer with the American Federation of Government Employees, a federal union. He represents veterans working in all Bureau of Prisons facilities west of the Mississippi River.

“That is not true. That is very, very inaccurate,” Canales said of Trump’s claim that he has support from furloughed workers. “There are probably half of the officers here who want the wall and half who don’t, but 100 percent do not want their checks held hostage because there’s a pissing contest between the president and Congress.”

Army National Guard veteran Jose Lau, a corrections officer at the Federal Correctional Institution in Dublin, Calif., is working without pay. Lau, 39, said many of his coworkers are veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, many of them with young families.

“It’s the fear of the unknown that’s the biggest problem,” said Lau, who served in Iraq. “We have no idea how long it’s going to last for, how we’re going to make the next house payment or car payment. Regardless of our beliefs on if we want the wall or not, we don’t care, we want to get paid.”

William Attig, an Army veteran who served in Iraq and a former union pipefitter, currently works as executive director of the Union Veterans Council in Washington. The council advocates for veterans in union jobs.

Attig began receiving emails and calls the day after the shutdown began, and he’s since heard hundreds of stories from veterans either already financially struggling or worried they will be soon.

“The words ‘stress,’ ‘anxiety,’ ‘hopelessness,’ feeling betrayed – that’s what we’re hearing from our members,” he said. “Any politician who says they’re proud of shutting down government should be ashamed of themselves.

Anyone who brings politics into the fact that veterans are not able to pay their bills should be ashamed of themselves. This is not something to be proud of or use as a tool.”

Back in Lathrop, Calif., Canales said he’s received too many calls to handle alone and has brought on other union representatives to help answer the phones.

He spent 27 years working for the Bureau of Prisons, but a shutdown has never felt as hopeless as this one, Canales said.

“When veterans call, there’s nothing positive I can tell them,” he said.

He’s referred three veterans to the Veterans Crisis Line, a VA-run hotline for servicemembers and veterans in crises. In one case, he told the veteran to call the crisis line while he drove to his home to make certain he was safe.

“He said, ‘Dude, I can’t believe this is happening,’ and I told him, ‘You have to hang in there,’” Canales recalled Wednesday. “I don’t know what else to tell them. I pray every day I don’t get that phone call from any of my people that they lost a vet because of the hardships being brought upon them.”

Twitter: @nikkiwentling