‘We’re just pawns.’ FMC employees must wait for pay

January 10, 2019

While correctional officer Heidi Wiplinger has gone through three government shutdowns in her 12 years at the Federal Medical Center, this one feels different.

This time she and her husband, Nick, have their 4-year-old triplet sons to think about as finances get tight.

“I have a really bad feeling that it’s going to last a lot longer than anybody is prepared for. This one has felt different all along,” she said as her three sons played in the background. “There is a lot of uncertainty… Everybody’s worried.”

She and the other 320 members of the Local 3447 labor union who work at Rochester’s FMC are still going to work every day. About a dozen couples work there, with both incomes for the family coming from the prison.

Union leader Sandy Parr said they are all trained as correctional officers, so they are all considered “essential” employees. That means working as normal, with the expectation of receiving back wages when government financing is freed up again.

About 420 employees work at the prison. The other 100 are mostly in administrative positions. Nationwide, the federal Bureau of Prisons has furloughed up to half of its 36,000 employees, including many who provide therapeutic programs for prisoners and other services considered not to be “essential.”

Wiplinger, who is a union steward, works a six day on, two days off schedule as she juggles family responsibilities. She received a partial paycheck on Dec. 31, though no check is expected for the work she has done since the shutdown began.

That means Rochester businesses, such as child care centers, grocery stores and gas stations, will soon find many customers have a lot less money to spend, if the shutdown continues.

FMC employees are collecting food and diapers to prepare for possible bad times to come. Wiplinger says the biggest challenge is asking for help, when you need it.

“I think it’s a huge struggle, not just for federal workers, but just for any adult or parent. You struggle to ask anybody for help, because you’re a parent. You think you should be able to provide at all times. That’s one of your jobs as a parent. And then you’re faced with a government shutdown you didn’t plan on,” she said.

Correctional officer and union member Robert Burkholder, whose wife, Ingrid, also works at FMC, said they certainly didn’t anticipate a shutdown as they purchased holiday presents for their three children.

“Usually, we have a little buffer, as far as savings. I just assume lawmakers would punt the football down the field again without a shutdown,” he said. “I wanted to take care of my kids during the holidays. I might have done this differently, if I knew there was going to be a shutdown.”

While there are reports of workers in other federal departments calling in sick or skipping work, Burkholder said that’s not something you see at the FMC.

“The one thing about our institution in Rochester is that we have very professional staff,” he said.

Despite having a bad cold, Burkholder went to work on the first day of the shutdown. Due to the nature of their work, employees are required to work an additional shift if their replacement calls in sick or doesn’t show up.

“We took an oath to provide safety and security every day. And we don’t want to let our co-workers down,” Wiplinger said.

What about the politics of the situation and the dispute over funding President Donald Trump’s wall?

Wiplinger and Burkholder said politics is not something the tight-knit prison employees generally discuss. However, they both said that it’s “disheartening” to work knowing you will not be paid on time.

“My biggest feeling is disappointment in both parties … It’s sad that they use our livelihood in their politics … We’re just pawns,” Burkholder said.

Dealing with the shutdown is a bit ironic for Wiplinger, who was urged by her city employee father to apply for a job at the prison.

“He told me working for the government is reliable and safe,” she remembered with a sigh.

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