SRS contractors fear the worst as shutdown wears on

 

Beyond the emergency furloughs, national park closures and ongoing negotiations between President Obama and Congress, the federal government shutdown has its human casualties.

Chris Johnson and Gary Driesen, contract employees at the Savannah River Site’s remediation plant, are two of them.

“I am now sitting at home with no income,” said Johnson, 62, of North Augusta. Just a week before the federal government shut down, he used his remaining paid vacation time to arrange his late father’s funeral in Indiana.

Like Johnson, a large number of younger hires who work at the plant, which represents 30 percent of the SRS workforce, are in the same boat – forced to collect no pay during the shutdown because of a lack of paid leave.

There are some veteran personnel such as Driesen who are using their paid vacation to stay afloat.

But doing that might also come back to haunt them later. The Martinez resident says using his vacation time now will cut into a long-planned trip to Europe he and wife has scheduled.

Johnson said he learned of the shutdown furlough through a company e-mail while in Indiana. He said the U.S. Department of Energy notified him that he and 1,400 co-workers had been furloughed “until further notice” due to the budget impasse, and that they could either choose to receive no pay or exhaust their built-up vacation time for financial support while out of commission.

A 20-year engineer at Savannah River Remediation, the primary contractor responsible for safely processing and removing millions of gallons of radioactive waste from the local environment, Johnson said as the shutdown wears on, all employees are starting to plan to be away from work for up to a month and possibly without lost pay forever.

Although Savannah River Remediation is contracted through the federal government, managers have reportedly told their staffs that they may not be covered under a bill passed by the House of Representatives to retroactively pay all federal employees for lost salary.

“It is a slap in the face that my family has lost our income simply because Congress and the president are in a vendetta fight,” Johnson said.

Employees still receive health insurance coverage and, thankfully, Johnson said, his family has enough savings to get by for a few weeks. However, the North Augusta resident added that the lost income lessens the money his family has for future emergencies.

“We are the people impacted that don’t get any assistance or consideration,” he said.

Given the option of taking no pay or receiving compensation through accrued vacation, Driesen, 64, elected to dip into six weeks of paid leave he had accumulated, he said.

While the decision has provided a financial buffer, it is slowly affecting a trip he and his wife, Marilyn, have been planning to take to Italy next year.

While at home, Driesen said he has been running errands and working on odd jobs around the house, such as repairing his garage door opener, arranging to have his house exterior painted, and touring assisted living facilities in the area to benefit his mother-in-law.

“I guess it has given me a little bit of a taste of what retirement might be like,” he said.

Though Driesen said it can be frustrating reading about the lack of dialogue and cooperation going on between the different branches and government parties in the news, he has confidence President Obama and Congress will reopen the federal government.

“I know it’s complicated and certainly many people feel the U.S. has the best political structure in the world, but because of our freedoms, it can be frustratingly slow sometimes with the process that comes with our government,” Driesen said. “I just hope everything is resolved sooner rather than later.”

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