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On LI, shutdown hits pocketbooks of federal workers

Randy Brown of Bay Shore, the national airspace

Randy Brown of Bay Shore, the national airspace operational manager at New York Terminal Radar Approach Control in Westbury, is working during the shutdown without pay. Credit: Jessica Rotkiewicz

The government shutdown is rippling across Long Island.

Thousands of federal workers missed a paycheck Friday, the first since the partial shutdown went into effect Dec. 22. Others are supposed to get paid Monday, but won't.

The workers are caught up in the standoff between President Donald Trump and Congress over $5.7 billion to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border.

Across the country, the number stands at 800,000. In New York State, 16,000 of the 51,000 federal workers are on furlough, according to the office of Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, who opposes the wall. The senator's spokesman did not know how many of the state's employees are on the job without pay. 

A little more than half, about 420,000, are still on the job — directing air traffic, issuing Social Security checks, inspecting meat and produce. The others are on furlough.

But the financial blows are striking many others, too: government contractors like the family that runs marinas on Fire Island, and private citizens like the taqueria owner who is one signature away from getting a small-business loan for his third location, in Center Moriches.

The workers, the contractors, the private citizens — their worries are different, but they are all very real.

The financial fallout 

Life is about choices, something Barrie Wood Jr. is all too aware of these days.

Wood decided 30 years ago, when he was just 20, to take a job with the IRS as a clerk in the mailroom. Today, he works as an information technology manager out of the taxpayer assistance center in Holtsville with 2,500 federal employees. Or he did until the shutdown. He and nearly everybody else at the center are on furlough.

Now, the choices are financial. He and his husband, Jeffrey White, are learning what they can and can't do with his weekly unemployment check of $450 — a third of his normal pay. White has  a job in shipping and receiving, but makes less than Wood.

“It’s not steak and ribs anymore. Now it’s chopped meat or whatever else is on sale,” said Wood, who moved back from Florida last summer to take care of his mother.

But the decisions at the butcher's shop are the easy ones.

He will pay only the minimum on his credit card and their car payments later this month. He is hoping he has enough money left to buy his diabetes medication and to pay the rent on their apartment in Medford. The upstate camping trip this summer is already off the calendar.

Wood could look for temporary work, but he can't do anything without the OK from his supervisor, and that can't happen during the shutdown. And if he took a job without permission, he could be fired once the government is back up and running.

Maybe the biggest thing he is turning over in his mind is whether he should stay with the IRS or start over in the private sector. He would take a 12 percent hit on his pension if he left the IRS now.

“I am so utterly disgusted with the government,” Wood said. “I want to see every member of Congress go without pay and benefits during the shutdown. Let them see what it feels like.”

Collateral damage

It was a Christmas without presents for the Biviano family, and that was only three days into the shutdown.

Now, three weeks in, the financial pain is sharp — and there's no sign of it letting up.

Doug Biviano is a government contractor. Or at least he was a government contractor.

Last summer, Biviano ran the marinas, restaurant and campground at Watch Hill and Sailors Haven on Fire Island. He expects he will land the contract again for this year, but the National Park Service officials he deals with aren't on the job.

With the contract on hold, Biviano can't take reservations for the coming season. He is afraid the vacationers will go somewhere else.

 "We don't know if we can make a living next summer," said Biviano, 49, of Cutchogue. "It jams the visitors up. It jams us up."

Even without a shutdown, Biviano knew the new year was going to get off to a rough start. Business was slow last summer. Watch Hill had just reopened after nearly two years of repairs for the havoc wreaked by superstorm Sandy in 2012. Visitors had to be lured back. And then there was the unseasonably cool weather that emptied the beaches.

But he wanted to stick with it. He and his wife, Lee, had sacrificed a lot. He had given up his job as a building superintendent. And at the close of last season, his wife left New York City's public school system, where she was a paraprofessional. The family had been covered under her health insurance. Now, they don't have any.

"If this goes on, we're going to have to get low-paying jobs just to stop the bleeding," he said.

Biviano is thankful that their three kids — Serena, 18; Jesse, 16; and Quinn, 11 — like to cook because they won't be going out with money so tight.

On top of their living expenses, he figures he will spend hundreds of thousands of dollars by the time summer comes just to keep his operation afloat — fuel and phone bills, workers' comp and disability insurance for the employees he hopes to hire.

"We're a family business caught up in a strange political battle."

A caring colleague

Joan Ballantyne isn't worried about herself.

She and her husband, Ian, will make it through this shutdown, her third in nearly a quarter-century of doing audits for the IRS. He makes a good living in cybersecurity.

But she's not sure about her co-workers, and that worries her.

What if they can't pay the rent or refill their prescriptions when their paychecks don't show up Monday?

"I have friends who need to work two jobs just to get by," said Ballantyne, of Manorville, who works in the tax agency's Hauppauge office with about 130 others. "I don't know what they're going to do."

And crazy as it may seem, she even feels for her clients. How are they going to navigate all the red tape? They could face penalties and interest on their unpaid tax bills. 

Unfinished audits sit on her desk. Tax revenue that the federal government could use for education, housing or even border security is going uncollected.  

Ballantyne makes it clear that — as much as she loves her job — she is running out of patience. If the shutdown should drag on for very many more weeks, she certainly wouldn't rule out leaving for something new.    

"I feel like no one really cares about our situation," she said of lawmakers in Washington. "They don't seem to care about us government employees."

Waiting on a signature  

Marc Lamaina is building a taco empire.

He already owns Lucharitos in Greenport, his 71-seat flagship, and Little Lucharitos in Aquebogue, which opened in October. He offers Mexican street corn and empanadas, but tacos rule, from pork to chicken to veggies.

Now, he is ready to expand again. He has the location, a 2,000-square-foot space on Montauk Highway in Center Moriches. He has hired a staff of 10 — a manager, hostesses, cooks and construction types ready to do the retrofitting. And the Small Business Administration has tentatively approved his $400,000 loan.

There is just one holdup: He needs final approval for the financing — and the document is on the desk of an administrator at the SBA office in Hauppauge, which has been closed since Day 1.

“All I need is one signature,” said Lamaina, 38. “It’s so frustrating.”

Without the loan, Lamaina is worried he will lose the property to another buyer. He is worried that he could lose the employees he hired for the new place. For the time being, he has them deployed at his other two restaurants, but paying their wages without the revenue from a third restaurant is cutting into his profit margins.

Lamaina also has big things going on in his personal life. He and his wife, Jennifer, have two boys — Joseph, 6, and Jasper, 5. Another, to be named Julius, is expected any day now. 

“We need to get this going and get to work,” he said. “I don’t want to lose this restaurant.”

Eating $8,000 a week

So far, Luis Lopez has lost about $24,000 in business. This week, he will lose $8,000 more. And the week after, $8,000 more.

His company, Alante Security in Westbury, supplies five guards to two Homeland Security offices in Brooklyn and Queens. 

"Those places closed," said Lopez, 70, of Levittown. "We can't do security if an office is not open."

Today, the guards are still on the job at other businesses. But Lopez nixed the Christmas party and put an end to the year-end bonuses. Next could be layoffs. 

"If it gets to be long-term and more places shut down," he said, "we'll lose some people."

And job uncertainty isn't just bad for workers. It's bad for business, especially a contractor. Keeping and recruiting good people becomes even tougher, he said.

"I wish I had a crystal ball to get into the heads" of elected officials, Lopez said. "They should stop politicking and do something."

'Worst time in the world'

Randy Brown is finalizing a divorce that put him $80,000 in debt. He has two daughters — Natalie, 14, and Sophia, who is 11 — to take care of. He has a mortgage and loans on his car and the solar panels he put on his home in Bay Shore.

The retired Air Force master sergeant needs the $130,000 a year he earns as the national airspace operational manager at New York Terminal Radar Approach Control in Westbury, an air traffic control center operated by the Federal Aviation Administration. 

Considered vital to the operation, the 59-year-old Brown is still on the job. He is guaranteed by law to receive retroactive pay, but that doesn't count for much when every penny counts. He does have savings and a pension from his 22 years in the military, but he can't collect unemployment, or moonlight.  

“This is adding a lot of stress to my life,” he said. “This is happening at the worst time in the world for me.”

But as tough as the shutdown is on him, Brown is more worried about the safety of the skies.

“What’s going to happen when a radar goes down at Newark and a technician needs to decide whether to go into work and sit at his desk or find a way to feed his kids?” Brown said. “It’s human survival …. The life effects of this shutdown are real. Irreparable damage has been done.”

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