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Stress Over Shutdown Hits Veterans Who Work For The Federal Government Hard

Veteran Donna Rogers (left) and Tyler Klan (right) protest with federal employees outside the USDA building on Goodfellow Blvd. in St. Louis.
Donna Rogers

Donna Rogers hasn’t received a paycheck in weeks. An Army veteran who works at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) office in St. Louis, she’s among the 800,000 federal employees around the nation working without pay or on furlough.

The lack of a paycheck is weighing on her. The partial government shutdown is now the longest running in U.S. history, with no end in sight.

“Being a single mom, bills are still due, period,” Rogers said. “So whether you have kids or no kids, you have teenagers, grown folks, whatever; I mean, bills are still coming through.”

Now veterans and their advocates are worried how financial instability is affecting this group of federal workers’ mental health, especially since many veterans consider the federal government an employer of last resort.

“Being unstable financially can cause a whole lot of more issues for our veterans,” Rogers said. “Not only we came to where some of us couldn’t get jobs once we got out the military, we have to be trained because nobody was accepting the jobs we did.”

The federal government is the largest employer of veterans in the U.S. One-third of the federal government is made up of veterans.

William Attig, the executive director of the AFL-CIO Union Veterans Council, is on high alert for shutdown-related mental-health issues among veterans.

“I just went through 13 pages of stories and quotes of veterans being affected right now,” Attig said. “And the number-one thing that they talk about is the heightened level of stress that the possibility of not being paid is giving to them.”

Attig said financial instability is one of the leading causes of veteran suicide.

Data from the VA National Suicide Data Report shows between 2008 and 2016, more than 6,000 veterans died by suicide each year. In 2016, the national suicide rate for veterans was 30 percent, while the Missouri veteran suicide rate was 34 percent.

Protesters gather in front of the USDA Rural Development building on Goodfelow Blvd to protest the government shutdown on  January 8, 2019.ed
Credit Chad Davis | St. Louis Public Radio
Protesters gather in front of the USDA Rural Development building on Goodfellow Blvd to protest the government shutdown on Jan. 8, 2019.

“As these veterans start to go into their savings that make up their financial stability, they’re going to slowly become less and less stable when it comes to finances, which will lead to instability in other parts of their lives,” Attig said.

VA safe, for now

Funding for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has been secured through September, which means services such as disability pay and mental-health services will continue at least through then. Other services many veterans rely on are at risk of losing funding, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), commonly known as food stamps.

About 1.4 million veterans rely on food stamps, according to a report by the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, and funding food stamps is one of many programs controlled through the USDA. That funding is expected to last at least through February. Other services including loan processing are also among those affecting veterans and others.

“It’s hurting that we can’t be of service to people who also are suffering like we are,” Rogers said. “They’re not necessarily a veteran employee. They’re a mom, they’re farmers; there’s an elderly lady who can’t get her medicine because she can’t afford some things.”

Rogers likens her federal job as a continuation of her service to country. Now she fears that service is being taken for granted.

“We served our country, and we’re still serving our country, because we come to the civilian government job with that same mindset that we took an oath,” Rogers said.

The shutdown is now in its fifth week. President Trump and Congress have yet to agree on a budget resolution.

Follow Chad on Twitter@iamcdavis

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Chad is a general assignment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.