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Shutdown matches record amid anger on payless payday

January 12, 2019

Payday came and went without pay on Friday for Rob Curnan and 261 other corrections officers at the Federal Correctional Institution in Danbury, as the federal shutdown that started Dec. 22 marked 21 days — matching the nation’s longest government shutdown, from December 1995 to January 1996.

“People are worried,” said Curnan, a union executive vice president at the prison. “They are saying this could last months or years. We have a lot of single-income employees.”

It’s little solace for now that both houses of Congress passed resolutions saying the roughly 800,000 affected federal employees — some on furlough, some forced to work with deferred pay — will eventually receive back pay. On top of money woes, the officers worry about the reaction of inmates in the medium-security prison as the prison employees are forced to work without pay.

“Inmates know this. They look to take advantage,” Curnan said. “We are looking for increased violence.”

Concern, anger and frustration mounted in every corner of the country Friday as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., went home with no end to the standoff in sight. President Donald Trump, holding out for $5.7 billion for a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, appeared willing, some would say even eager, to see the outage of all non-essential federal services last for months.

Sens. Chris Murphy and Richard Blumenthal, both D-Conn., did what they could to support federal employees at Tweed-New Haven Airport and brewers in Bloomfield unable to gain licenses to expand.

“We will keep working to reopen the government,” Blumenthal said, but Congress has made little progress.

Brewing frustration

In Hartford, a federal housing official had been helping dozens of families move from a vermin- and mold-infested public housing project to new, safe, affordable homes until the shutdown. But the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development is idled, leaving the tenants in the lurch.

“There’s no one to help them now,” said Erin Kemple, executive director of the Connecticut Fair Housing Center.

Jorge Perez, commissioner of the state Department of Banking, issued a statement “asking financial institutions to consider ‘prudent’ workouts for existing loans and extending new credit to help borrowers unable to gain credit through shuttered federal financial agencies.

”These efforts on the part of financial institutions will not be subject to examiner criticism,” the department said.

Perez urged consumers to work with their financial institutions while the shutdown affects loan approvals and credit reports.

”Don’t wait,” Perez said. “I am encouraging all institutions to do their best to assist their customers during this trying time.”

In Bloomfield, at the Thomas Hooker Brewery, Michael Haseltine said he and his wife were set to open the state’s latest craft beer brewery in Bristol, probably in April.

All that was left to do was obtain the required federal license, label approval and other paperwork from the little-known Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau. But that’s not happening anytime soon.

“It’s keeping us from opening the doors,” said Haseltine, owner of Better Half Brewing. “There is no one to even talk to.”

The brewers, meeting with Blumenthal, all said their new product lines are in limbo. Breweries constantly change their products and the federal agency makes sure labels are accurate and standards are met.

Curt Cameron, president of the Hooker Brewery, said his spring line may not be put out because of the shutdown.

“It’s frustrating,” Cameron said. “I shudder to think what the backlog will be when the government reopens. We have two now [awaiting] label approval.”

Cameron and other brewers said the holdup affects their entire operation, saying the large chrome kettles where beer is made have to remain full until label approval arrives, which means the next beer cannot be brewed.

“We need to reopen the government so these guys can sell their product,” Blumenthal said, noting the large national brewers are better able to withstand delays than smaller craft brewers like Hooker.

Manuel Rodriguez, owner of the Stony Creek Brewery in Branford, said he plans new beers months before offering them to customers. “This holdup is a major problem,” he said.

Hostage workers

Blumenthal said Democrats in the House have passed individual bills to open the branches of the government without funding for the border wall that Trump demands.

“The bills are on the floor, let us vote on them and put the president to the test,” Blumenthal said.

The president is considering declaring a national emergency and using existing funding reserved for disaster relief or the military to build the wall. Democrats and others have vowed to challenge that declaration in court, saying there is no crisis that warrants an emergency declaration.

At Tweed airport, 30 employees are among the workers who have gone without paychecks for three weeks.

“He can’t continue to use these employees as hostages,” said Murphy, who was joined by New Haven Mayor Toni Harp, outgoing Tweed executive director Timothy Larson and airway transportation specialist Dennis Amato.

“We are grateful that we have security personnel who are continuing to work without pay,” Murphy said, but he added, “They need to get paid. They need to find jobs, even temporary ones, to put food on the table.”

He referred to Miami International Airport’s plans to close one of its terminals this weekend due to staffing shortages. A Miami airport spokesman told the Miami Herald that one of the terminals will be closed as of 1 p.m. Saturday.

Amato, a 30-year industry employee, said working for no money is a bit easier for a veteran like himself.

“I’m worried about the younger guys,” he said. “The people who have families, have bills to be paid. They’re going to have to be taking out loans.”

At the Danbury prison, Curnan, the corrections officer, said inmates earning up to $1 an hour are still being paid.

“They are making more than we are,” he noted.

As for himself, he said, “My wife works but our pay is cut in half. ... We budget for two incomes and now we have to pick and choose what bills to pay.”

He added, “The government sent out letters explaining the shutdown, but creditors don’t want to hear that. We have people with new babies in the house. They are holding our paychecks hostage.”

This story includes reports from Hearst Connecticut Media staff writer Bill Cummings, CT News Junkie, The CT Mirror and Associated Press. 

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