In St. Louis suburbs, thousands of federal workers feel the shutdown’s bite

— They moved here to get off the farm or off the assembly lines of a declining auto industry. Others arrived searching for work after serving long tours in the military.

A federal government job was a ticket out of a harder life, a way to secure a place in the middle class.

The town of Florissant grew on the aspirations of people such as Navy veteran Antonio Burnett and his wife, Annette, who landed two of the 25,000 federal jobs in the St. Louis region. Antonio, 43, became an information technology specialist at the Agriculture Department’s rural development and farm loan program. Annette, 40, joined the IRS as a taxpayer advocate. They bought their first home — a spacious rancher — and started saving to send their five children to college.

But this week, the Burnett family, along with about 2,000 other federal workers who live in this northern suburb of St. Louis, found their hopes in jeopardy, their community besieged. Like many others, the Burnetts were told they shouldn’t come to work because of the government shutdown. They had little idea when they might return.

Washington is not the only front line in the shutdown.

The vast majority of federal workers, about 85 percent, live outside the Washington region, and the furloughing of about 800,000 employees is having a far-reaching impact, often in places where many of the good private-sector jobs have vanished. Three thousand civilian workers, for instance, were furloughed this week at Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio. In Colorado, where the federal government is the largest employer, about 40,000 employees are out of work during the shutdown.

In addition to about 1,000 employees furloughed at the Agriculture Department facility where Antonio Burnett works, 500 St. Louis area employees of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have been ordered to stay home. Across the Missouri River in Illinois, at Scott Air Force Base, 3,000 more civilian employees, many of whom live in St. Louis and its suburbs, were furloughed, and hundreds more were ordered off the job at the city’s elegant Gateway Arch and the National Personnel Records Center, which houses the fingerprints and military records of Elvis Presley, among millions of other people.

Trying to cushion the blow

Here in the St. Louis area, churches and libraries are seeking to cushion the economic blow, following what they term “Midwest tradition” to hold “shutdown survival financial planning classes” in coming weeks. The United Way is partnering with the AFL-CIO to offer union members as much as $300 of emergency financial assistance for those facing delinquent rents or mortgages, along with referrals to food pantries for children of the shutdown.

The community has a history of pulling together, most recently during the recession, Antonio Burnett says.

This week, he attended his son’s Pop Warner football practice, cheering from the sidelines under the lights at St. Vincent Park. Neighbors strolling past cheered his T-shirt that read: “Labor Conquers All Things.”

“Oh, well,” he said, laughing at the intended irony. “I take the saying on the shirt back! It’s what I used to think. It was a blessing to get this job, and it opened up a lot of doors for my family. Now it just feels like this slap in the face.”

For many here, their jobs with the Agriculture Department’s Office of Rural Development — once known as the “poor people’s agency — were not just a paycheck or a step into the middle class but also a way of giving back to the communities they hail from.

Nicole Starr, a single mother of three who also lives in Florissant, said her job with the Agriculture Department, helping low-income rural people make their mortgage payments, was a career she felt proud telling her parents about. At her office, she would walk every day past photographs of farmers and rural residents, the kind of people her agency has helped keep their homes.

“Now I’m in the same position as the people I help,” she said. “I feel like I am watching our community fall apart.”

‘That’s all gone now’

Over the past two years, the Agriculture Department has eliminated nearly 200 jobs at the St. Louis office of the rural development and farm loan program. The department also has cut tuition reimbursement, which many people, including Starr, were using to take courses and pursue master’s degrees.

That’s on top of a three-year wage freeze for federal employees, federal budget cuts known as the sequester and the spreading disdain among many Americans for government work.

Federal workers today find themselves caught in political crosscurrents, said Steve Hollis, a leader of Local 3354 of the American Federation of Government Employees and a 31-year veteran of the Agriculture Department. Hollis, the grandson of farmers, said he went to work at the USDA after he lost his job on an auto assembly line that was shuttered.

Over the years, the region’s economy has suffered repeated blows as General Motors and Ford closed factories. Then the mortgage crisis and the recession hit.

“Link that with the sequester and now the furloughs, and you have American families unable to plan for a future,” said Hollis, 65. “We fought really hard for social mobility programs within the federal government. But that’s all gone now.”

In Florissant, the evidence can be found in the largely empty Jamestown shopping center and billboards for a St. Louis-based online reality show called “Thrift Shop Divas,” along with “We Buy Gold and Your Silverware” pawn shops.

The Burnett family has already cut back on the “nonessentials,” said Antonio, laughing.

In the past, the family would go out to dinner once a week to Denny’s or Applebee’s.

“Any place where the youngest kid eats free,” he said. “It was nice for the family. But we ended that. And cable, man, we got to get that shut off.”

The family won’t be going to this weekend’s NBA basketball game, although Burnett’s daughter practically begged. And even his “Monday Night Football” parties in the neighborhood have to be downsized.

“I was picking out my usual St. Louis-style toasted ravioli and chicken for the guys. When it came to the sodas, I said to my wife, ‘Baby, can I get this?’ And my wife, who’s always right, said we really can’t afford it. I was moping around the store like a big kid.

“But I have to start thinking like an unemployed person now.”

Emily Wax-Thibodeaux is a National staff writer who covers veteran's affairs and the culture of government. She's an award-winning former foreign correspondent who covered Africa and India for nearly a decade. She also covered immigration, crime and education for the Metro staff.
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