Dole Favors Returning, Paying Furloughed Workers for Short-Term
WASHINGTON (AP) _ Highlighting differences with House leaders, Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole said today he favors temporarily returning furloughed federal employees to work and paying them.
``I think we’ve made our point,″ Dole, R-Kan., said. ``Some of these good people who work for the government ... live paycheck to paycheck. There aren’t too many wealthy people working for the government.″
With the partial federal shutdown in its record 18th day, Dole told reporters he had ``a lot of ideas″ about what to do. He said one of them is sending workers back to their jobs for seven to 10 days while budget talks with President Clinton continue.
Asked if he could push legislation through the Senate today ending the shutdown, Dole said he wanted first to talk to House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga.
House leaders have said they will not end the shutdown _ even temporarily _ until Clinton and the GOP strike a deal on balancing the budget by 2002. Until now, Republican leaders in both chambers had proposed returning the 260,000 furloughed workers to their jobs without pay until the budget impasse ends.
Dole, a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, has long expressed discomfort with the prolonged partial government shutdown.
Dole’s proposal would be a relief to federal workers like Joyce Rush.
To Rush, a $21,000-a-year nursing assistant in a Los Angeles veterans hospital, the impasse that partially shut the government is not about trillion-dollar budgets. It’s about the shutoff notice for her water and electricity.
The stalemate is not about multibillion-dollar tax cuts to Winifred Ruiz, a $24,000 Social Security clerk in New York City. It’s about her $512 rent check.
After a one-day New Year’s break, budget negotiations resume today _ in Congress, on proposals to get furloughed workers back on the job, and at the White House, over a seven-year balanced budget.
But while lawmakers and Clinton talk, Rush, Ruiz and other low-paid workers in unfunded agencies are in desperate financial straits.
They’re flooding the non-profit Federal Employee Education and Assistance Fund with applications for help. The charity provides low-interest loans to federal workers in normal times and now is providing grants to the most needy. Executive Director Steve Bauer said the fund is in danger of going broke.
Rush’s situation is especially acute. The single parent and mother of six had open heart surgery Dec. 11, but when the shutdown began Dec. 16, her sick pay stopped along with her regular pay. She is among 760,000 workers in unfunded agencies whose paychecks only cover the period prior to the closure.
``There was no food. My children came and brought food in,″ Rush said in a telephone interview. ``They were going to shut off the light and water January 4″ unless a $323 overdue bill was paid.
The fund sent a check for the utility bill and another $175 for food. Aware that lawmakers’ salaries of $133,600 dwarf hers, Rush said, ``I don’t even make their change and I’m suffering.″
Ruiz received $100 for food from the fund along with $400 for rent that didn’t quite cover the $512 she owes. A single parent, she said the person who watches her three children is willing to wait for her money.
``I’m talking about a lot of stress,″ Ruiz said. ``Morale has gone completely down (at her Social Security office in Queens). ``Everyone is at each other’s throats.″
Ruiz is among the 480,000 employees given emergency worker status and kept on the job without pay. Another 280,000 are home on furlough. Congressional leaders have promised the workers will be paid eventually.
Arguments are scheduled in federal court today on a lawsuit by the National Treasury Employees Union, which is seeking a court order to stop the government from requiring federal workers to be on the job without pay.
Karen Wakefield, a computer specialist with the U.S. Information Agency, said she received an electronic message from the agency offering to help furloughed employees apply for unemployment.
Of course, the advice only reached ``those who dialed in to get e-mail. We were encouraged to advise those who didn’t have e-mail.″
Wakefield, who lives in the Washington suburbs, said employees were cautioned that any benefits would have to be returned if they receive their regular pay later.