'There's a lot of anxiety': Shutdown fallout grows as impact hits suburban residents

Among workers from air traffic controllers guiding planes through the region to furloughed EPA workers who can't monitor air pollution, anxiety over a partial government shutdown has reached a boiling point.

"It's our first real dose of reality. ... We are not getting paid on Tuesday," O'Hare air traffic controller Dan Carrico said Thursday. "It just adds to the stress of an already stressful job."

The frustration is also real for local Environmental Protection Agency employees.

"Everybody at work believes our mission is to protect public health and the environment," said EPA environmental engineer Mike Mikulka of Crystal Lake. "When we're not able to do that, the American public is denied those benefits."

Mikulka on Thursday joined hundreds of federal employees in Chicago for a rally to protest the standoff between Congress and President Donald Trump over the budget.

It's been 21 days since the government closed with no resolution in sight for the 800,000 employees who are furloughed or working without pay. About 8,000 federal workers in Illinois who would normally get checks in the next few days will go empty-handed, according to Democratic U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin.

Relief may come later, as the Senate on Thursday night unanimously approved a bill ensuring that all federal employees will receive retroactive pay once the shutdown ends. All employees, whether furloughed or not, would be paid as soon as possible under the stipulations of the bill, which now goes to the House.

But for now ...

"I just bought a house. ... I won't be able to pay my mortgage," Transportation Security Administration worker Christine Vitel of Justice said at O'Hare International Airport Tuesday. "I'll either lose it or my credit rating will go way down.

"I want to know why the shutdown even exists," the single mom said.

Carrico said his rainy day fund will be stressed.

"We've got to tighten belts around the house, and pick and choose what bills will be paid," said Carrico, a National Air Traffic Controllers Association representative.

Anger, shock and "a bit of hopelessness" were among the emotions his colleagues expressed. "We're very professional and we strive to have the safest system in the world, but we're also human," Carrico said.

The holiday season cushioned the impact, but the result of skeletal staffing at the EPA and Federal Aviation Authority is making its mark locally now.

The FAA had scheduled hearings on an interim overnight runway rotation plan for O'Hare in the first week in February in Elk Grove Village and Elmhurst. Those might be postponed, Durbin predicted.

"I think you'll see most of those agencies put things on hold for a period of time, including these important conversations about safety and the future of O'Hare."

Elsewhere, the EPA has been monitoring air quality around Willowbrook-based Sterigenics for ethylene oxide, a cancer-causing gas.

Since employees were furloughed, no one is analyzing the data and "getting it out to the public so everyone knows what is going on," said Mikulka, president of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 704.

"There's a lot of anxiety."

Meanwhile, if food stamps can't reach recipients, local food pantries expect a big bump in customers.

About 40 percent of Naperville's Loaves and Fishes' families rely on food stamps, said Janet Derrick, vice president of the pantry's CARES Programs.

This week, the agency also got its first calls from furloughed workers.

"We're holding our breath," Derrick said.

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  The Rev. Jesse Jackson speaks during a rally against the government shutdown Thursday at Federal Plaza in Chicago. Joe Lewnard/
  With the Rev. Jesse Jackson beside him, Matt Muchowski of the American Federation of Government Employees speaks during a rally against the government shutdown Thursday at Federal Plaza in Chicago. Joe Lewnard/
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