Columnist

Richard and Melissa Heldreth are among the federal employees caught in Uncle Sam’s twilight zone of working without pay.

Unlike hundreds of thousands of his fellow federal workers in that situation, Richard Heldreth faces danger every day he goes to work at a federal prison known for its violence. A correctional officer since 1997, he is now stationed at the Hazelton penitentiary in Bruceton Mills, W.Va., where he is the local union president. Three prisoners, including Boston gangster James “Whitey” Bulger, were killed there last year.

“Hazelton is one of the most violent prisons in the country,” Richard Heldreth said. “I have witnessed many violent acts at the prison over the years.”

Violence and staffing shortages led him and others to call for a national prison lockdown “because we believe that the shutdown, coupled with the already understaffed environment in the BOP [Bureau of Prisons], is creating an unsafe work environment,” he said, speaking as president of Local 420 of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE). “Tensions are high in our facility, and this is greatly fueled by the shutdown and the uncertainty that it creates for my staff.”

The BOP rejects a national lockdown, saying in a statement: “A lock down is actually more staff-intensive than normal operations, requiring more staff to carry out escort procedures and modified operations such as feeding, showers and exercising inmates in their units. A nationwide lock down prompted by the shutdown could also give inmates the impression they are being punished for the consequences of the shutdown, which can increase safety and security concerns.”

This is not Heldreth’s first time in the twilight zone. Because of his job, he can’t stay home as furloughed employees do. As a federal employee, he cannot strike. Working full time and mandatory overtime allows no time for a second job. Ironically, federal inmates are paid for their work with a government company not dependent on congressional appropriations.

Heldreth has been in this fix before as a federal employee, required to work even when his agency has no money for payroll. After the last shutdown, in 2013, he was among federal workers who sued Uncle Sam and won. Years later, he’s still waiting for the fruits of that victory.

Like other federal workers, Heldreth received backpay after the 2013 closure and probably will after this partial shutdown ends. A 2017 U.S. Court of Federal Claims ruling ordered the government to compensate him and about 25,000 other federal workers for the delay in their paychecks, including overtime pay.

Those payments still have not been made.

“Litigation never moves as fast as we’d like,” said Heidi R. Burakiewicz, who is employed by the law firm Kalijarvi, Chuzi, Newman & Fitch. She is working with AFGE on the case.

One reason for the delay in the case is that it’s the first time a federal court considered issues raised by the lawsuit. Burakiewicz expects a similar suit involving the current shutdown to move much more quickly because the basic legal issues have been resolved.

Then and now, requiring federal employees to work without pay, she said, “is a blatant violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act.”

Being in a family of two federal workers, neither of whom is getting paid, is a formula for hardship.

“Personally, my family began cutting back on expenses before Christmas. We canceled plans that we had made to visit family out of state, and just generally cut back on gifts and things,” Heldreth said. “My wife is also a federal employee and has been furloughed from her job, so our entire household income has been eliminated. We had a little savings that got us through this past pay period, and we were able to pay our bills that were due, but going forward, things are going to be difficult.”

The Heldreths have two children, ages 11 and 16. “They watch the news with us, and we’ve explained the political posturing behind all of this to them,” their father said, “so they understand what’s going on.” Melissa Heldreth, a furloughed FBI employee, declined to be interviewed.

Richard Heldreth was not a party to a different lawsuit by the National Treasury Employees Union and the National Air Traffic Controllers Association that was argued Tuesday. Those unions argued against the administration’s requiring employees to work without pay. The federal judge in that case refused the unions’ request for an immediate stop to that practice, but another hearing is planned.

While Heldreth took the legal route to fight the shutdown, some of his colleagues chose another path — calling in sick.

“Staff are calling off at an increased rate since the shutdown began. We typically average 10 to 20 call-offs a day” at Hazelton’s complex of four prisons, he said. “This Saturday, there were over 60. This causes more mandatory overtime for the staff that remain at work, which is leading to burnout and, in turn, fueling more call-offs.”

There is no organized campaign behind the sick calls, according to Heldreth. “This isn’t something that I promote or encourage,” he added. “Having said that, I understand the difficulties that staff are going through and why some are struggling.”

If only President Trump understood.

The four Democratic senators from Maryland and Virginia — the District has none — asked Trump to meet with federal workers such as Heldreth and others among the 800,000 who are furloughed or working without pay. “We believe,” wrote Sens. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), Ben Cardin (Md.), Tim Kaine (Va.) and Mark R. Warner (Va.), “that you would benefit from listening to their stories.”

Heldreth has many to tell.

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