By Michael Sprinker, Crain News Service
CHICAGO (Oct. 3, 2013) — I'm nearing the end of my 29th year of work in occupational safety and health — including six and a half years with the U.S. government — my 35th year of full-time work and my 47th year since I first earned money doing summer jobs.
I've been unemployed before, in 1980, but this is the first time I, along with 13,300 of my U.S. Department of Labor colleagues, have been locked out of work.
I can tell you the chemicals that workers are likely to be exposed to in many industries. I can organize and teach classes to train health and safety inspectors and state consultants to find and correct problems that could lead to the release of flammable and toxic chemicals that can injure and even kill people.
But I cannot figure out how long my workplace will be shut down.
The possibility of a long shutdown worries me the most. In 1995-96, the government shutdown totaled 28 days. This time the likelihood of back pay (remember, we are all willing, ready and able to work) is about zero.
I have some savings. But that means there are things I will not be doing or buying—that's bad news for retailers and others. Will I be able to make up the charitable contributions that I have deducted from my pay? That really bothers me, because contributing is an important part of who I am. I am bound by government ethics rules, so I can't even seek temporary work in my field: Working for someone who potentially is subject to Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) enforcement is a conflict of interest.
As a union steward, I worry about my co-workers. We have new employees who are veterans, who just moved to the area and have bought houses. I remember how tight money can be at times like that. I have colleagues who are helping support elderly parents or who are the sole supporter of children.
What about those of us, including me, who are older? What will be done to our pensions, which are essentially a 401(k) for those who started after the mid-1980s? What additional cuts will federal workers face to make up for the constant deficits following the shift of tax burdens since 1982?
Then there is the problem of the work I have to do to improve training, particularly for upcoming classes in chemical plant safety — improvements needed so we can help inspectors and consultants better understand how processes work. In the abstract, it doesn't sound that important. But behind these concepts are dead and maimed workers. Think of chemical plant disasters of the past 30 years.
It really bothers me that I cannot do the work during the lockout that I would normally be doing; to do so is illegal. During the last shutdown, federal workers were fired for doing unauthorized work.
So as this shutdown continues, more than just federal workers will suffer. But before you say that I shouldn't care so much, ask yourself if the rest of the time you complain that federal workers couldn't care less about the public. Then think again.
Michael Sprinker is an instructor at the U.S. Department of Labor in Arlington Heights, Ill., and a steward at Local 648 of the American Federation of Government Employees. This piece appeared in Crain's Chicago Business magazine, a sister publication of Tire Business.