State’s federal employees brace for bumpy times

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By David Abel
Globe Staff / April 8, 2011

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As the political maneuvering in Washington draws to within hours of a federal government shutdown, Cecile Caruso wants politicians jockeying for influence or hewing to ideology to know what it would mean if she cannot collect a paycheck.

“There will be a lot of people like me who will suffer, meaning paying bills will be a problem,’’ said Caruso, a secretary for the Internal Revenue Service in Boston. “It will be very difficult. We survive on our paychecks and can’t just dig up money in our yard. We’re scared.’’

Caruso is one of about 65,000 federal employees in Massachusetts, including postal workers, according to the state Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development.Officials at the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association, a Washington-based advocacy group, said about 25 percent of the state’s federal employees are unlikely to receive paychecks if the government closes.

“The bigger issue is that the federal government does extraordinary work for the American people, and during the shutdown, many of those services will be temporarily unavailable,’’ said Dan Adcock, an association spokesman. “The secondary effect is the lost wages to federal workers, who like all Americans are having a hard time making ends meet in the difficult economy.’’

A shutdown of the government would affect many historical sites, including the Bunker Hill Monument in Charlestown, President Kennedy’s birthplace in Brookline, Adams National Historical Park in Quincy, and Minute Man National Historical Park in Lexington.

Sean Hennessey, a National Park Service spokesman, said teachers who booked field trips to the sites next week are worried.

“We’re telling them to stay posted,’’ he said, adding there is still time for the president and Congress to avert a shutdown. Without an agreement, the government would be shut down at midnight tonight.

Governor Deval Patrick said the impact in Massachusetts would depend on the length of a shutdown.

“But we’re very concerned about support for students who are getting federal aid for colleges,’’ Patrick said. “We’re worried about the continued flow of support for our infrastructure, to the extent that the federal government has a role in some of those projects. We’re concerned about the continual flow of Medicaid dollars for the MassHealth program. You know there are . . . all kinds of ways in which we partner with the federal government.’’

Economists say a shutdown that lasts beyond a few weeks could hurt the economy.

“The real question is how long it will last,’’ said Barry Bluestone, dean of the School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs at Northeastern University.“If it’s 24 hours or 48 hours, I don’t think it will have much impact.’’

Bluestone said the government could sustain a prolonged shutdown, because it plans to keep many essential services running. But that could exacerbate the impact on workers who are furloughed.

“To the extent the shutdown is a minor inconvenience, rather than a major event, it doesn’t hold the Republicans and Democrats’ feet to the fire,’’ Bluestone said.

One of the biggest impacts of a shutdown could be on tax returns. IRS spokesman Peggy Riley said the agency would not be able to process paper returns. The “operational plans are still being finalized,’’ she said, adding that the IRS has no plans to extend the April 18 filing deadline.

Additionally, the IRS would slash staffing for hotlines to answer tax questions. The shutdown could also put audits on hold.

And some federal contracts could be interrupted. The government awarded $15.4 billion in contracts for work done primarily in Massachusetts last fiscal year, mostly through the Defense Department. Major recipients included Raytheon, which accounted for more than one-quarter of that amount, General Dynamics, General Electric, and MIT.

For home buyers, a lengthy shutdown could significantly delay mortgage processing.

The US Department of Housing and Urban Development would largely shutter its offices nationwide, putting nearly all its 9,700 employees on furlough, a spokesman said. The Federal Housing Administration would stop insuring mortgage loans for single-family homes.

Federal court and postal employees would not be affected, at least temporarily.

“We are going to . . . continue to operate,’’ said Tracy McLaughlin, who works in the clerk’s office at US District Court in Boston.

Among families of military service members from Massachusetts, the threat of a shutdown is stoking anxiety.

“We’re already behind to begin with,’’ said Maureen Johnson, an Abington mother of two whose husband, Carl, is deployed with the Massachusetts National Guard in Baghdad. “It makes me scared, because you don’t know when the next check is going to come in.’’

Yesterday, Defense Department officials assured service members, who have to work because their jobs are related to national security, that they will be paid retroactively for the length of any shutdown. If a shutdown lasted for a week, service members would be paid through today and receive half of their regular, two-week paycheck on April 15. If a stoppage lasts through the month, they would not receive any pay on May 1, when the next paycheck is due.

The Defense Department would continue to provide essential services such as medical treatment, emergency dental care, dining services, and child care. Military retirees would continue to receive benefits.

Congress will decide whether to make a retroactive payment for the estimated 800,000 government workers who would be required to take a leave during a shutdown. Congress has authorized such payments in the past, and the White House says it would support reimbursing employees.

Johnson said she heard about a possible shutdown from her husband Wednesday.

“He’s concerned because he knows I’m trying to stay on top of everything,’’ she said. “It also affects him because he has to access that account.’’

Outside the John F. Kennedy Federal Building in Boston yesterday, Debbie Osborne, 54, an administrative officer at the US Department of Health and Human Services, said she felt what was happening in Washington is deeply unfair.

“I feel the federal employees are being used as piece of a puzzle for the politicians,’’ said Osborne, of Winthrop. “It’s not like I can afford a paycheck loss.’’

Ann Awiszus, 44, of Medford, said she and colleagues feel like scapegoats. If an agreement is not reached, she said, she would have to spend less, eat at home more, and live more frugally. But the program analyst at the US Department of Labor said she is concerned about the message being sent to the world.

“It doesn’t send a pretty picture,’’ she said. “At this point, I think everyone needs to come together and work things out.’’

Michael Levenson, Brian MacQuarrie, Todd Wallack, and Jenifer McKim of the Globe staff and Globe correspondent Jenna Duncan contributed to this report. David Abel can be reached at