Kadner: Shutdown becomes real for local residents
By Phil Kadner firstname.lastname@example.org October 3, 2013 9:12PM
The doors of the Social Security Administration building in Chicago Heights have multiple signs warning the public that while the office is open for business during the shutdown, there are many normal services (such as getting Social Security cards) that are not being offered. | Phil Kadner~Sun-Times Media
Updated: November 5, 2013 6:21AM
Edgar Mullins, of Richton Park, and Justin Jones, of Chicago Heights, became victims of the federal government shutdown on Thursday.
They lined up early in the morning in front of the Social Security Administration office in Chicago Heights.
The office was open for business but wasn’t offering new or replacement Social Security cards, the reason Mullins and Jones were there.
“I lost my Social Security card years ago when my wallet was stolen and need one to start truck driving school on Monday,” Mullins, 31, told me as we stood in front of the SSA building on Halsted Street near 197th Street.
“They told me inside that until the government returns to normal, I’m out of luck.”
Jones, 31, who came to the office with Mullins and also lost his Social Security card years ago, said, “It’s disappointing to know that they can shut down the government. The government is supposed to help us, that’s why it’s there, but what they’re telling us is that the government isn’t going to help us.
“We’re both starting truck driving school on Monday. We want to go to work. Earn a living and pay taxes.
“I don’t know if they’re going to let us into the school without a Social Security card.”
“It’s bull----,” Mullins said when I asked him his opinion of the government shutdown.
Janice Szpejnowski, of Chicago Heights, has been trying to get the Social Security Administration to refund $210 mistakenly deducted from her Social Security check to pay for Medicare Part B for months.
“They took too much money out of my check and that’s a lot of money to me,” she said. “I finally got them to admit the error and came here today to ask when I’m going to get my check.
“They told me they couldn’t say because the government is shut down. Shut down or open for business, it really doesn’t seem to matter, because I couldn’t get them to do what I needed.”
But Szpejnowski was upset to learn from employees at the Social Security office that they’re not getting paid.
“I think that’s wrong,” she said. “The president is getting paid. The congressmen are getting paid.
“The higher-ups get their money but the people at the bottom don’t. If people come to work, they should get paid.”
A union representative for the Social Security employees confirmed that they are expected to continue working without a check until the shutdown ends.
In the past, government employees asked to report to work during a shutdown were reimbursed for their time once the government opened for business, but that could mean weeks without a check if Republicans and Democrats can’t find common ground.
“We are deemed essential employees during the shutdown, but we’re furloughed, not getting paid,” said Charlene Gonzales, 58, who works at the Chicago Heights SSA office.
“If we don’t report to work, we could get fired. If we go to work, we don’t get any money.”
Gonzales, who has worked for the SSA for 40 years, said she was working during the last government shutdown in 1995.
“But that was very short, like one day, and we all were coming back to work,” she said. “This looks like they are nowhere near reaching an agreement in Washington.”
Actually, the government shutdown under President Bill Clinton went from Nov. 14 to 19, 1995, and from Dec. 16, 1995 to Jan. 6, 1996, a total of 28 days.
“My children are grown, but my husband is on disability, so we rely on my paycheck to pay the bills,” Gonzales told me.
“And we can’t even collect unemployment, because we’re not unemployed.”
I told her that the last time the government shutdown occurred federal employees were given back pay.
“Yes, but there’s no guarantee of that,” she said. “There’s nothing in writing.
“And there are people I work with who are the sole support of their family. They can’t afford to miss a single paycheck.”
She said SSA employees are scheduled to get a paycheck next Friday, but unless the government ends the shutdown, they would only get one week’s salary for two weeks of work.
“And they deduct taxes, insurances, everything from that check,” she said. “So it won’t be much money. If this goes on a month, who can afford to live without a check for a month?
“The people who did this, the people in Congress, are getting paid. But we are not.”
Social Security checks will continue to be dispensed from the trust fund, but the employees get paid from an appropriation that must be approved by Congress.
The SSA also verifies that people are eligible for Medicare and disability benefits, and that is one of the tasks it may not be performing now.
“If someone needs to go into a nursing home and the nursing home needs to verify that they receive Social Security and Medicare benefits before admitting them, they will not get that verification,” a union representative told me.
I called several local nursing homes and hospitals and no one could confirm that was a problem.
However, Patricia Ness, 28, of Dixmoor, was at the Social Security office in Chicago Heights trying to apply for disability and was turned away.
“I brought all my paperwork,” Ness told me, “but they told me they can make copies and put them into the system but can’t process my disability claim.
“I can’t work. I can’t get disability. I guess I will just have to wait until this thing is over with. I don’t have a choice.”
Chantella Smith, 27, came down to the SSA office with her two children, Romeo, 5, and Chamari, 3 months, and couldn’t get verification for her landlord that she was receiving government aid.
“All I need is a printout for proof, but they told me they can’t do that here but that if I wanted I could go to the public library and get a printout off the Internet site,” Smith said.
Most of the people I saw at the SSA office, about 30 in a waiting area, were getting help.
But for a few, the government shutdown is no longer just a news story.