For a few moments on a memorable day in mid-April, Bobby Paterson was a hero.
He was working his maintenance job at the John F. Kennedy Library on Columbia Point, fixing a broken toilet, when he and a co-worker, Ray Garcia, noticed thick black smoke coming out of a vent. When they opened the door to a maintenance room, they were shocked to realize that the building was on fire.
This was on Marathon Monday, just after the bombs had gone off on Boylston Street, as panic gripped the city.
Paterson and Garcia grabbed extinguishers and did their best to beat back the fire until the Boston Fire Department came along to extinguish it. For an anxious hour or so, the fire at the JFK Library had seemed like it could be part of some crazy plot, and Paterson and Garcia were hailed for their quick reactions. A few people noted that they were part of a program that put disabled people to work.
Paterson and Garcia received a different kind of notice last week: They were called in and told they were being furloughed as part of the government shutdown. They are out of work until further notice, thanks to a political chess match in Washington that they only vaguely understand.
“They sound like a lot of little kids,” Paterson told me Sunday, speaking of the United States Congress. “Like a bunch of little kids fighting over different things.”
Paterson is a stroke survivor, who also copes with dyslexia and Type 1 diabetes. He is employed by a Dorchester nonprofit called Work Inc. It’s a great organization that advocates for disabled adults, urging employers to see what they can do, instead of focusing on what they can’t.
The federal government contracts with the agency for maintenance and janitorial services. Work Inc. trains and provides the labor force. About 110 of its clients do maintenance and clean federal buildings around Eastern Massachusetts.
Some of those places are closed. Because the Work Inc. people are independent contractors rather than government employees, they won’t be helped by legislation that will eventually give back pay to furloughed employees. The wages they are losing are simply lost. The longer the shutdown, the more they lose.
Jim Cazetta, the chief executive of Work Inc., says many of its employees could be sitting home if the furlough lasts much longer. Conceivably, these self-sufficient individuals could end up on unemployment and Medicaid, making a mockery of a shutdown that claims to be about fiscal sanity.
“Their anxiety will be back up, they’ll be back to their therapists,” he predicted. “This is turning the clock backward for them. They want to be working.”
Paterson has worked at the library since 2002. Before that, he did the same kind of work at the airport. After the stroke wrecked his short-term memory, finding work he could handle took some time. Just getting by on his own has been a major victory.
Curiously, the House has been trying to roll back the shutdown in tiny increments. First, it decided to pay the military. Then it decided that some medical research should be funded. Next, the House passed a bill to pay the furloughed workers, not that ending their furloughs is even being seriously discussed.
Even those conservatives who want to shrink federal government to nearly nothing have belatedly realized that some government functions actually need doing. Head Start will be funded in a few days, the experts predict.
Jobs like cleaning the Kennedy Library do not spark the same kind of public outcry as paying the troops or keeping Head Start open. Reopening the library is probably not at the top of the congressional agenda, but its continued closure is wreaking havoc on a guy like Bobby Paterson.
“We’re not unemployed,” he said ruefully, pondering whether he will file for unemployment. “We’re just not getting paid.”