ST. PAUL, Minn. - Nearly 150 employees who work for the Veterans Benefits Administration at the Whipple Federal Building received furlough notices Tuesday morning, learning their positions had been deemed "non-essential."
Many of the employees furloughed are veterans themselves and picketed outside the building.
"Shutdown the shutdown!" chanted a group of about two dozen people.
"I've worked here for 22 years. And it's not a good feeling, kind of like you are not appreciated," said Jeff Burke, 54, who is a disabled Navy veteran who says his wife also works in the same department and was also furloughed.
"Both our incomes are cut to zero right now until Congress passes something," he said. "It's time to stand up and vote everyone out. It's just enough."
The American Federation of Government Employees Local Union 1969 represents the furloughed employees and says, of the estimated 685 people who work in veterans claims, 148 were furloughed. AFGE President Vicky Sirovy says it will bring a delay in processing claims for veterans, because claims will be left behind on the employee's desks. She noted the department has already seen such a backlog in processing claims since employees were recently mandated to work 20 hours of overtime each month.
"I serve homeless veterans, elderly veterans and minority veterans," said Stanley Walton, a furloughed Army veteran in charge of outreach to vulnerable veterans across the state. "We are civil servants here to serve the American public and that's what we'd like to get back doing as soon as possible."
The spokesperson for the regional St. Paul Veterans' Benefits Center, Pete Panos, is also furloughed, but last week he emphasized the furloughs will not impact VA hospitals and will not interrupt veterans' benefits.
A spokesperson from Rep. Keith Ellison's office also attended the rally with furloughed workers to read a statement from the Congressman. He emphasized that he voted against the Republican majority bill that led to the shutdown, which puts the paychecks of 18,000 Minnesotans at risk.
"Veterans and seniors applying for new benefits will see their paperwork delayed. Head Start programs may have to close," wrote Ellison.
Walton says he planned to immediately file for unemployment. Burke says he'll have to cut corners on his bills right away.
"It's not the Department of Veterans Affairs fault. It's my Congressman, my Senator and my President's fault," said Burke.
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