Blind workers hit particularly hard by federal government shutdown

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Janusz Leja, 37, checks on his coffee-and-sandwich bar at the Metcalfe Federal Building downtown Tuesday. Leja, who is blind, had to close his bar shortly after the government shutdown for lack of customers. | Stefano Esposito/Sun-Times

In the lobby of the Metcalfe Federal Building downtown, a man with a white cane probed the perimeter of a shuttered coffee-and-sandwich bar as though he didn’t realize it was closed.

That’s how it appeared, but Janusz Leja, who is blind, knows every inch of Kava Café. He’s managed it for the past 4½ years.

Since late December, he’s come every other day to check on his equipment and to toss out expiring sandwich meat and souring milk.

Leja is a trickle-down victim of the nation’s longest-ever federal government shutdown. He has no customers — or not enough to make it worth his while to stay open — and hasn’t since Dec. 23.

“I had a little [money] saved for this month, but next month I don’t know what’s going to happen,” Leja said, sitting at one of a dozen or so empty tables surrounding his café this week.

A sign on the bar counter read, “Closed,” along with a clock symbol that says someone will return at 7 a.m.

Like tens of thousands of federal workers in Illinois, Leja has no idea when he’ll return to work.

He is one of 17 blind vendors working on federal properties through an Illinois Department of Human Services employment program for the blind, said Meghan Powers, a DHS spokeswoman.

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Furloughed federal employees at least have the potential to receive back pay and the opportunity, in some cases, to get a temporary job. Neither is a good option for Leja and others like him working on federal property.

Before the shutdown, Leja was doing about $20,000 a month in sales. He tried re-opening his café after the Christmas break, but the trickle in customers didn’t even pay his employee costs, he said.

“It’s all money I won’t recoup,” said Leja, who lives in Oak Lawn.

Nitthaya Nishijima, 55, is another blind vendor. She runs a small convenience store on the second floor of the Kluczynski Federal Building downtown and also has three vending machines.

Business is better in her building because it houses a number of departments that aren’t shut down, including the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. But sales are down about 30 percent, Nishijima said.

Getting a second job isn’t an easy option for a visually impaired or blind person.

It took about a week for Leja to get the lay of the land in the space he leases in the Metcalfe building, 77 W. Jackson Blvd.

And some jobs just aren’t easy to land for blind people, said Nishijima.

“I cannot go to the Jewel [Osco] and bag or go to the Starbucks to supplement my income,” she said. “Do you see a blind [grocery store] bagger? Have you seen a blind person working at Starbucks?”

Janusz Leja, 37, closed  his coffee-and-sandwich bar at the Metcalfe Federal Building downtown<br>after the partial government shutdown began. | Stefano Esposito/Sun-Times

Janusz Leja, 37, closed his coffee-and-sandwich bar at the Metcalfe Federal Building downtown
after the partial government shutdown began. | Stefano Esposito/Sun-Times

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