'I'm preparing for absolutely the worst': How a government shutdown could impact Illinois

Dysfunction in Washington D.C. will have consequences throughout the Chicago region if lawmakers can't strike a deal to avert a government shutdown this weekend, federal and union officials said.

The fallout could impact travel at airports such as O'Hare, weaken food assistance programs, and suspend U.S. Environmental Protection Agency pollution monitoring.

There's also a personal and economic toll on more than 42,000 Illinoisans, mostly from Chicago and the suburbs, who are federal employees. If no agreement is reached by midnight Saturday, many would be furloughed or required to stay on the job without drawing a pay check in either case.

“I'm guardedly hoping that something great is going to happen. I'm preparing for absolutely the worst,” said Chicagoan Nicole Cantello, an American Federation of Government Employees official who worked as an EPA attorney.

As of Wednesday, House Republicans had yet to reach consensus on a plan to fund the government although some lawmakers have floated stopgap measures.

If the shutdown occurs, essential workers such as mail carriers, U.S. Transportation Security Administration officers and air traffic controllers would remain on the job.

But during the 2019 shutdown that lasted 35 days, an increase in sick leave by TSA agents and air traffic controllers caused lengthy waits at some security checkpoints and delayed flights between New York and O'Hare and Midway international airport that January.

Social Security payments would continue, however, experts warn federal food subsidy programs for needy families could run low on resources if the shutdown is lengthy.

A reduction in food aid could be devastating for some residents, DuPagePads Executive Director April Redzic said.

“When you are someone who is living at or near the poverty level, one more thing can be what makes you unable to pay rent, be evicted or just end up in really bad circumstances,” she said. “We're not talking about people with a lot of disposable income. If you have to pick between buying milk and clean diapers for your baby — you may not have clean diapers.”

For the EPA, a shutdown means no one scrutinizing air-quality monitors near plants in the region, explained Cantello, president of AFGE Local 704.

“These facilities could be polluting people's air and no one will know it because those results are going to be landing in our inboxes and we will not be able to look at them,” she said.

The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois has 1,500 employees at its Chicago courthouse and is handling 17,609 pending civil cases and 1,015 pending criminal cases.

The district anticipates there are enough resources to pay employees through mid-October.

But “any interruptions in the court's operations are of grave concern,” Chief Judge Rebecca Pallmeyer said in a statement.

“We have a large number of criminal and civil jury trials scheduled to proceed this fall,” she said.

Meanwhile, for drivers who wonder if a shutdown means postponing roadwork on the Kennedy Expressway, the Illinois Department of Transportation doesn't anticipate any impacts to highway projects, spokesman Guy Tridgell said.

“The department will continue to receive federal funds as it normally does,” he said.

The Congressional Research Service lists 42,637 civilian employees in Illinois, however that does not include some departments such as the U.S. Postal Service.

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A TSA agent watches travelers going through a security check point at O'Hare International Airport. More than 42,000 federal workers in Illinois will be impacted if the government shuts down this weekend. Daily Herald File Photo
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