Government shutdown strains Md. employees Help with mortgages, counseling offered to workers in crisis

January 03, 1996|By Michael James | Michael James,SUN STAFF Sun staff writers Gary Gately, Lisa Respers, Frank D. Roylance, Diana K. Sugg, Dail Willis, and John B. O'Donnell contributed to this article.

As the federal government shutdown goes into its 19th day, tens of thousands of workers in Maryland are feeling its effects, prompting employers across the state to offer emergency relief ranging from stress management counseling to loans for food, diapers and baby formula.

Among those offering aid is the Federal National Mortgage Association, Fannie Mae, which announced yes

terday that it will try to improvise payment plans for federal workers who can't make their mortgage payments due to the shutdown.

"I think you could classify this in the same category as a natural disaster," said Fannie Mae spokeswoman Kate Fralin. The mortgage association adopted similar sweeping relief measures last fall for those affected by the devastation of Hurricane Opal.

Throughout Maryland, employers have begun similar programs to help the workers, who seem to be feeling the crunch more with each passing day. Employees staged a rally outside the Social Security Administration (SSA) in Woodlawn yesterday and told politicians they are becoming disgruntled with the government.

"My family has been devastated by this," Noreen Gordon, a benefits authorizer who has worked at SSA for 13 years, told U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski at a morning meeting. "I think it's shameful and I think it's disgraceful."

Amid cheers, the employees gave the senator a padlock and chain, along with instructions that read: "Take this back to Washington tomorrow and tell them to lock themselves in a room until this is resolved."

Several employees are facing eviction and loss of good credit ratings because they do not have the money to pay their bills, said Jan Shipiegelman, a union representative who has been helping employees find aid.

"If this runs a couple more weeks, there is going to be a major economic crisis in this state," Mr. Shipiegelman said. "Today is the first day that people are really realizing how little they are being paid."

About 130,000 federal jobs are based in Maryland, at an average salary of $43,600, according to the state Board of Revenue Estimates. Another 90,000 federal workers live in Maryland but commute to jobs in the District of Columbia or Virginia, and financial experts estimate that federal payrolls in Maryland come close to half a billion dollars a month.

At the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Baltimore, 26 counselors, psychologists and social workers who normally work with patients are helping their fellow employees deal with emotional and financial problems arising from the budget impasse.

Although only 87 of the center's 1,200 employees were furloughed as nonessential, even those who remain on the job were shorted on the paychecks they received yesterday.

"I don't think some people realize how hard this is hitting some of these federal workers who are living paycheck to paycheck. It can really hurt," said hospital spokesman David Edwards.

Veterans Affairs sites have even opened employee stores, with payments deferred for essentials such as food and diapers.

The shutdown "is disrupting the lives of millions of people, not only the federal employees, but ordinary citizens who depend upon the federal employees to provide them with important services," Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, a Maryland Democrat, said in a Senate floor speech.

Among the other reported effects of the shutdown:

* The furlough has canceled a NASA news conference to reveal the first results from the $1.3 billion Galileo mission to Jupiter. The spacecraft's probe parachuted into Jupiter's clouds Dec. 7, but the announcement of the findings was scheduled for Dec. 19 -- three days after the shutdown began.

* The Social Security Administration has stopped processing new Social Security numbers and replacement cards, letting the 60,000 applications that pour in daily stack up.

* The Department of Veterans Affairs reports that benefits are being mailed, hospitals and other medical facilities are operating and the dead are being buried. But grounds keeping at veterans cemeteries is not being done and headstones for the newly buried are not being ordered.

Effects could be felt as far away as the Delmarva Peninsula, where two refuges and a national park have been closed.

Recordings at the Eastern Neck National Wildlife Refuge, south of Rock Hall in Kent County, and at Assateague National Seashore, off the coast of Ocean City and Virginia, informed callers that both were closed because of the government shutdown.

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