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Llera is one among thousands of federal employees in Puerto Rico affected by the partial shutdown of the United States government, which has been going on for 34 days. (Ramón “Tonito” Zayas)

Yesterday, after filing for unemployment, Geneive Llera walked almost half an hour to get free food from a food truck in Hato Rey

Llera has not been fired and has a successful career in the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA), but has been furloughed for more than a month due to the federal government partial shutdown.

After a morning of running errands, she wanted to avoid paying for lunch, so she came to one of the food trucks that offers free food to furloughed federal employees.

"This is excellent, the best. Not having to spend money on one's food, helps. Yesterday, I also went to Fondos Unidos (United Way of Puerto Rico)... That helps a little; not spending from my own pocket," said Llera, who has two children and now lives on her husband's salary, so they had to make adjustments.

"Yesterday, I went to see if I am eligible for  vouchers and I have to explain to the children: 'I cannot buy you this candy or ice cream ... I cannot ...'", she added. "All this is so stressful... I don´t know , will it be tomorrow that I am going back to work? Yes, I´m kind of losing  sleep over it. I am a Christian but I does stress me anyway."

Llera is one among thousands of federal employees in Puerto Rico affected by the partial shutdown of the United States government, which has been going on for 34 days.

The scenario is getting even worse since some agencies have already started to let their staff know that the situation may last another month.

On top of her current situation, Llera was also overwhelmed by the paperwork needed to file for unemployment at the Puerto Rico Department of Labor and Human Resources (DTRH, Spanish acronym). “I called and called and they did not answer the phone. Then, they tell us that we will be ineligible… so we will have to go to the Department and prove that we are federal employees and are unemployed”, she said.

"It takes between 10 and 15 for you to receive a letter stating the amount they grant you," said the Llera, who admitted having accepted the extensions offered by financial entities.

According to DTRH, 232 federal employees have applied for unemployment benefits. 186 have been approved.

In addition, 42 workers have requested the Nutrition Assistance Program, according to the Department of Family Affairs.

Yesterday, the Department of the Treasury reported that it granted a moratorium, between January and March, in  payment plans to furloughed federal employees affected by the partial shutdown.

An initiative to help

Dozens of other federal employees arrived yesterday to the Yummy Dumplings Food Truck, located in front of the Federal Court, in Hato Rey, which is part of an initiative - at the national level - of the organizationWorld Central Kitchen, founded by chef José Andrés.

According to the manager of the program in Puerto Rico, Mikol Hoffman, the aid will be extended for more hours a day and in other areas of the island, as long as the partial shutdown continues.

The organization is also evaluating delivering meals directly to the offices in the agencies affected, where there are some employees working without receiving paychecks. This would be financed with funds that the organizations separates for emergencies.

Dressed in their blue uniform, three Coast Guard officers were the first to pick up a plate of rice, beef and salad.

"Any help is good, especially for all those who are having a bad time. Some of us are fine, but others are not. This help is good, " said Angel Dávila, a Coast Guard officer, one of the agencies where employees are working without receiving paychecks.

 Most of the employees at the food truck did not want to be interviewed, fearing that they could face reprisals.

 On the other hand, union leaders representing federal employees have kept raising.

A critical picture

Lorna Nadal, president of Chapter 193 of the National Treasury Employees Union  (NTEU) Chapter 193 Lorna Nadal, said that yesterday only about 100 out of 566 employees at the call center of the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) could report to work.

However, she added that, shortly after 9:00 a.m.,  workers left claiming "financial difficulties".

According to Nadal, since the shutdown extended for more than 30 days, the IRS told them on Monday, that it was obliged to notify its employees that they would be furloughed for up to 30 more days.

“People are desperate at work, wondering when this will end”, said Nadal. “There is no money… Some will work until Friday and then they are not coming back because they cannot”.

Meanwhile, Javier Centeno, president of union local 557 of the Transportation Security Agency (TSA), said that absences continue at the Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport, the main entry point.

He even said that he personally spoke with his bosses to warn them that soon he would not be able to go to work.

"After 33 days, the morale goes down and the economic situation is getting worse," said Centeno, recalling that tomorrow they will not  have their second paycheck.

"It's not that they're sick or upset, it's that they simply cannot go. We are reaching the limit of our economic capabilities," warned Centeno.

He said there are no long lines at the airport so far because it´s the low season on the island but he anticipated that after second missed paycheck, absences could increase.

Prisons cancel visits

On the other hand, the partial shutdown has also affected federal prison family visits, including the Metropolitan Detention Center, in Guaynabo, which canceled them, as stated by Jorge Fermín, president of Local 4052 of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), which represents the prison guards who work at the Guaynabo prison.

He also noted that lawyer visits were modified but he could not specify details.

El Nuevo Día tried to contact the prison administration in Guaynabo, but they did not answer the calls made to the contact numbers on its website.

Meanwhile, the Public Affairs Division of the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP), at the central level, indicated in writing statements that the administration of each federal prison has the tools to operate and face challenges and that they have all the options to address any specific concerns, including shortage of employees, if that were the case during the shutdown.

For the BOP, facilities may, for example, take steps to temporarily stop or cancel visits, temporarily reduce or cancel programs or implement modifications to other operations.

In turn, Dallie Cruz Ruiz, from the Pro-Rehabilitation of Inmates organization, denounced that "there are no visits." "Families already know it, but they did not explain that it was due to the federal shutdown," she said.

"Services or programs for inmates have also been affected," she added.

Fermín said that absenteeism among correctional officers at the federal prison continues due to the shutdown, however he said they are within “normal” range.


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