The government shutdown isn’t just an East Coast problem

SHARE The government shutdown isn’t just an East Coast problem

Security lines at Chicago’s airports haven’t been affected by the partial government shutdown. | Getty

The partial government shutdown may feel like an East Coast problem — President Donald Trump feuding with Democrats in Congress, snaking lines at New York’s LaGuardia Airport — but the longer it drags on, the more it will affect people here.

The worries include how long federal food-assistance programs will last and how furloughed federal workers will pay their mortgages or rent.

At O’Hare Airport on Tuesday, U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin stood with federal Transportation Security Administration employees, some of whom are worrying about their own reserves.

Durbin’s office said the roughly 2,000 TSA employees who work at Chicago airports are doing so without pay. In all of Illinois, 8,000 federal workers are not being paid during the partial shutdown, the second-longest in U.S. history. While paychecks schedules vary by agency, many federal workers will miss paychecks starting this week.

“I just bought a house,” said TSA employee Christine Vitel. “I’m not going to be able to pay my mortgage. So, yes, this is affecting me personally. Other people are married. They do have another income. I do not.”

So far, Chicago’s airports haven’t experienced the long lines that travelers reported at LaGuardia last weekend. TSA has acknowledged more screeners are calling in sick, but they say the effect has been “minimal.”

Durbin told reporters: “From a security viewpoint, though, you’ve got to look at this in honest terms. There will come a breaking point for many of these individuals and families. Why are we doing this?”

The online real estate listing agency Zillow estimates that, nationwide, unpaid federal employees make about $249 million in monthly mortgage payments. In a piece published this week, Zillow Research described the effects of the government shutdown on the housing market as “wide-ranging and personal.” Among other things, because the Federal Housing Administration is operating with limited staff, Zillow estimates that some 39,000 applications for federally backed mortgages may have been delayed.

At the Greater Chicago Food Depository, which distributes food to about 700 soup kitchens, pantries and other agencies across Cook County, there’s considerable anxiety over future funding, in particular, for the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

“We view SNAP as the frontline defense against hunger,” said Greg Trotter, a spokesman for the food depository. “If benefits are disrupted for almost 40 million Americans who receive SNAP benefits, there is no way food banks like ours could make up those benefits.”

As of 2018, about 1.7 million people in Illinois receive SNAP benefits.

On Tuesday, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced the program will be funded through the end of February.

Meanwhile, at the Dirksen Federal Courthouse things appeared to be functioning as normal: judges are hearing cases, the cafeteria is open, and new criminal defendants like Ald. Ed Burke (14th) are being charged. But the strain from the shutdown could soon be more apparent.

Two weeks ago, U.S. District Chief Judge Ruben Castillo issued a general order suspending for 14 days all civil litigation involving the federal government. His order notes that certain federal government employees, including Justice Department attorneys, “are prohibited from working, even on a voluntary basis, except in very limited circumstances, including ‘emergencies involving the safety of human life or the protection of property.’”

That order was set to expire Wednesday, but late Tuesday, Castillo extended the order indefinitely.

Castillo told the Sun-Times earlier this week he would be holding a staff meeting Wednesday. A full suspension of all civil trials is among the possible options if the shutdown doesn’t end soon.

Contributing: Jon Seidel, AP

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