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Washington Post photos
Federal workers facing loss of income from furloughs under sequestration are turning to their union leaders for help, changing the duties of people like Eddie Eitches, president of American Federation of Government Employees Local 476.

Federal furloughs taking toll

Union locals doing a lot of counseling as employees’ income falls

Eitches meets with Maurice Jones, deputy secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

– John Hiller knows chemistry, not counseling. Until recently, he was a Customs and Border Protection scientist checking imported goods for drugs and toxins.

But a few weeks after being elected president of his union local at CBP’s Washington headquarters, the sequester struck. When the $85 billion in across-the-board cuts started taking effect earlier this month, Hiller found himself fielding phone calls day and night and emails from employees worried about lost wages from as many as 22 furlough days.

“One thing I wasn’t prepared for was having a Gulf War veteran breaking into tears on the phone about being able to pay his bills,” said Hiller, president of National Treasury Employees Union Chapter 128. “He’s a Marine just getting his life back together, and suddenly he’s looking at losing $300 a month.”

In the sequester era, union locals are the nexus of anxiety. The national unions, such as the NTEU and the American Federation of Government Employees, are waging the public budget battles on Capitol Hill. But rattled federal workers – more than 300,000 in the Washington region – often turn for information, help and sympathy to the offices of local union leaders such as Hiller. Overnight, local union officials have become confidants, financial advisers and social workers.

“There is a curse I keep thinking of: ‘May you live in interesting times,’ ” said Hiller, 59. “It’s both exhausting and rewarding to be in this job right now.”

At the Department of Housing and Urban Development one morning a couple weeks ago, AGFE Local 476 President Eddie Eitches walked the corridors, trying to buck up HUD workers with word of new concessions wrung from the agency.

“Hey, brother, how are you doing?” Eitches asked an employee in the elevator. “What do you think of the agreement?”

The employee, Victor Powell, had not heard of it.

Eitches, a quick-talking, constantly moving former HUD litigator, described negotiations that had reduced the number of furlough days between April and September to seven and ensured that they applied equally to managers and the rank and file.

“That’s better,” Powell said, nodding. “What about the transit supplement?”

Even in the best of times, it can be hard to stay cheerful inside HUD headquarters, a block of drab gray corridors in Southwest Washington once described by a HUD secretary as “10 floors of basement.”

In Local 476’s third-floor offices, next to the staff snack bar, there is not a scrap of natural light. So the walls have been covered with bright art.

“Since we don’t have windows, this is a way of comforting people,” said Eitches, standing beneath a massive portrait of Elvis Costello.

Workers have needed a lot of comforting since furloughs were announced. There were early warnings of as many as 22 forced days off, more than a month’s pay. That was a cause for panic among many staffers, especially coming on top of a three-year pay freeze.

Local 476 represents nearly 6,500 HUD workers. Melissa Jones, a HUD paralegal and union shop steward, has been quietly approached by dozens of them who say they are already living paycheck to paycheck. And sometimes, not so quietly.

“We get a lot of blame from people: ‘You’re not helping. What can you do?’ ” Jones said. “Sometimes I say, ‘I’m sorry. I’m in the same boat.’ ”

Jones is a single mother who lives with her three children in Baltimore County, Md., where her bills of $3,000 to $3,500 a month already outstrip her GS11 salary by about $400. She is looking for a cheaper apartment and recently did not refill the $60 Advair inhaler she needs for asthma.

“We’ll be cutting back on groceries to get through these furlough days,” Jones said.

At CBP, employees are bracing for 14 unpaid days between April and September. For many of the 1,300 workers Hiller represents, that will be more of a setback than a disaster. (Hiller has scrapped his own plans to trade in his 10-year-old car, for at least another year.)

Better-off workers are full of technical questions: Can I substitute a vacation day? (No.) Can I batch them together? (Still undetermined.)

But for others, furloughs will mean missed bills and real pain. The agency rolls include employees at the low end of the wage scale – some kennel workers who care for the agency’s sniffer dogs make about $15 an hour, Hiller said – who already struggle with the region’s high cost of living.

When he meets with the hardest cases, Hiller has learned to listen first and go into problem-solving mode only after the emotion has subsided. Some workers are canceling cable service. Some are cutting up credit cards. Others will apply to the agency’s Employee Assistance Program.

Hiller has asked the credit union, where many workers bank, to consider rescheduling some loan payments. And because credit problems can interfere with their security clearances, he is advising workers to negotiate with creditors before they get a late-payment notice.

“It’s been kind of like dealing with a tragedy,” Hiller said.

He describes the five-step process his members are going through: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.

“Those guys in Stage 5 are the ones making plans to minimize the impact,” he said.