John Siciliano, 43, has worked at the Federal Detention Center for over 20 years as a correctional officer.
One of the most dangerous federal jobs out there, the average retirement age for a CO is 50 in Pennsylvania, in part, because of the risks. He is working there right now, but he isn’t getting paid due to the partial government shutdown since Dec. 22.
“I can’t pay this mortgage payment, I’m not going to be able to pay next mortgage payment. We deal with Bank of America, and they are pretty much telling us that we are just another person who just walked off a job and that’s not the case,” said Siciliano, a father of two. “I can’t get a second job, because I am mandated so I have to stay to work.”
Siciliano held back tears at People’s Plaza following a rally led by the American Federation of Government Employees, Tuesday. With Independence Hall as well as a currently understaffed and overworked Federal Detention Building serving as a backdrop on either side, Siciliano stood with his wife Victoria, a teacher in New Jersey, and told their plight to State Sen. Vincent Hughes, one of a handful of elected officials who spoke at the rally.
“They are victims of a political decision, largely emanating out of the White House, and his unwillingness as human beings, as very real people,” said Hughes told Philadelphia Weekly in reference to the Sicilianos. “They have done everything right, they put in the hours, they go to work, and they are getting screwed.”
The main “political decision” at the heart of the government shutdown is the U.S.-Mexican border wall that President Donald Trump wants to build with $5.7 billion of taxpayer money. The House passed a bill, which rejects the wall funding, to reopen the government on Jan. 4, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has refused to bring a funding bill to the Senate floor. There are approximately 800,000 federal employees affected by the current government shutdown, 380,000 of them are furloughed, meaning unpaid absence, and 420,000 of them are expected to work without pay any time soon, according to Market Watch.
“It’s not just the hundreds of thousands that are federal workers, it’s also the contractors. The millions of contractors that work for the federal government, and they are not going to get back pay,” reminded newly sworn-in U.S. Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon. “The House has already passed legislation, the same legislation as the Senate so this should be over as soon as the president stops having his temper tantrum.”
This isn’t the first shutdown Siciliano said he has endured during his time as a federal worker, but it is the longest. Even with retroactive pay, the mounting bank fees, inevitable taxes, credit damage, and new reality of truly living paycheck to paycheck, the Sicilianos say the damage has already been done.
“There are things that you can’t fix afterward, I can’t fix my credit score after it’s already ruined,” said Victoria Siciliano, 40. “I worked really hard for that, and that’s what is so heartbreaking. I make my financial decisions, who is going to say that you are going to make my financial decisions for me?”
The rally was filled with similar sentiments of crippling fears, all voiced by federal workers from various departments.
Joseph Rush, a furloughed worker with the United States Department of Agriculture, had to pull his 5-year-old son out of daycare. As of now, Rush is relying on his wife’s paycheck, who serves as a waitress.
“This is being put on us. They said we could make adjustments, but that’s not the reality for most of us,” said Rush, 32, who resides in Quakertown. “I tried working with my mortgage company, they won’t work with me.”
U.S. Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick told PW that he is taking a stand against the shutdown by refusing pay, and he advised other members of congress follow suit.
“Leadership starts at home, and every single member of congress ought not to get paid,” said the Republican congressman representing Bucks County. “They got to give their money back to the US Treasury, so we can feel what [the federal workers] feel. Sometimes that changes your perspective.”
Three U.S. Democrat representatives from Pennsylvania have already joined Fitzpatrick in refusing pay, including Scanlon, Dwight Evans of Philadelphia, who was also a speaker at the rally, and Chrissy Houlahan of Chester County.
As a former FBI agent, Fitzpatrick remembered the anxiety of living through a government shutdown and having others decide who were “essential and nonessential employees” of an agency comprised of workers that ensure the nation’s safety.
The two-term congressman explained that in order to prevent a similar situation in the future, an emphasis needs to be placed on long-term budgets and non-budgetary issues should not be factored into government shutdowns.
“People are taking a very sensitive issue, which is immigration reform, which is something that we need a bipartisan consensus on and are using it as a political football which is unacceptable,” Fitzpatrick continued. “This is not the way to run the government of our country.”