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For Buffalo's federal employees, government shutdown causing pain

Shannon Hennessey's 8-year-old son, Patrick, interrupted dinner recently with the kind of question that furloughed and unpaid federal workers nationwide might hear from their children, too.

"Last week we had soup for dinner and my son asked if it was because we didn't have money," said Hennessey, 42, of Williamsville.

Both Hennessey and her husband, Sean Hennessey, work at the Internal Revenue Service in Buffalo and have been on furlough since the start of the nation's longest government shutdown on Dec. 22.

And while money wasn't the reason the Hennesseys ate soup that night, the family and hundreds of others in Buffalo are joining thousands nationwide in feeling a financial pinch they never expected – all because President Trump wants to build a wall at the Southern border and Democrats won't agree.

The Hennesseys have savings that they can use through the shutdown, but they had to rearrange the automatic car payment deductions that normally come out of their paychecks and otherwise shift around funds to make sure their bills get paid.

Other "feds" aren't so lucky. Some across the nation are selling belongings on Craigslist to get by. And to hear J. David Cox Sr., who heads the largest union representing federal employees, they want to get back to work.

"With the exception of a tiny handful, federal workers are united in opposition to the shutdown, the lockout and their forced labor without pay," said Cox, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents 700,000 federal employees, including those affected by the shutdown at the Transportation Security Administration, Census Bureau and federal prisons. "They want to be back providing vitally important services to their fellow Americans and they want to be paid."

Some 420,000 federal employees nationwide have been on furlough since the shutdown began on Dec. 22. Meanwhile, 380,000 personnel who were deemed essential kept on working without pay.

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It's hard to say exactly how many of those furloughed and unpaid employees are in Buffalo. The Office of Personnel Management, which keeps track of such things, is shut down, its website largely inoperative.

The most recent employment data to be found elsewhere comes from 2014, from a public affairs firm called Eye on Washington. Based on Office of Personnel Management data, the Eye on Washington report said 925 people worked for the Treasury Department in Erie County at the time, with the vast majority of them at the large local IRS operation. Another 155 worked for the Social Security Administration, another agency where many workers are furloughed now.

Separately, the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority – which works with several federal agencies – said 264 people work locally for the Transportation Security Administration. Another 172 work for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, while 29 work for the Federal Aviation Administration. Most of the employees at those agencies are considered essential and are working without pay.

Adding all those numbers up – in what is admittedly a rough count – it's likely that more than 1,500 Buffalo-area federal workers are either furloughed or working without pay because of the shutdown.

As one of the furloughed workers, Hennessey wishes it weren't so. She said she enjoys her job working on international tax issues in the Buffalo IRS office and that she wants to get back at it rather than sitting around and worrying about the shutdown.

"You start out your day and say you're not going to think about it, but no matter what, something will trigger it," she said.

She said the family is trying to not spend a lot of money, given that no one knows exactly how long the shutdown will continue.

With that same thought in mind, the Consumer Credit Counseling Service of Buffalo announced last week that it is offering free financial and credit counseling to federal employees who have been affected by the shutdown.

"We want to encourage folks to be proactive," said Noelle Carter, the agency's president and CEO. Even for federal employees who think they can muddle through the shutdown, "it can't hurt to get a financial checkup," she said.

Of course, some feds might be too busy for a financial checkup despite the shutdown. That's because they are still working – without pay.

"At our weather service, our members are very dedicated," said Kirk Apffel, union steward for the National Weather Service Employees Organization, where 19 of the 20 local workers are working without pay. "People are still coming to work if at all possible."

That seems to be the case with local TSA agents and Customs agents as well.

While lines at the Buffalo Niagara International Airport were unusually long one day over the holidays, there has been no sign that TSA agents have stopped coming to work in frustration as the shutdown has dragged on, said William R. Vanacek, the airport's director of aviation.

Similarly, there has been no disruption of customs operations at the Peace Bridge, said Ron Rienas, general manager of the Buffalo and Fort Erie Public Bridge Authority. Rienas noted, though, that customers who want to apply for the Nexus trusted traveler program can't do so now, just because the unpaid Customs and Border Protection agents are focusing only on essential tasks.

Unpaid federal workers face a lot of frustration.

"The big problem most of us face is not knowing when the next paycheck will come," said Apffel, who is married but has no children. "That makes financial planning very difficult."

The other problem federal workers face, of course, is a federal government that isn't working for them.

"We have various political views running the whole spectrum" at the local weather service operation, said Apffel, 42, of Williamville. "But you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone who thinks the shutdown is a good idea."

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