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Marylanders hurt by the federal shutdown

National GovernmentMedical ResearchFamilyU.S. Government Shutdown (2013)

In a research lab in East Baltimore, rats that provide clues to how the brain degenerates with age could grow too old or even die before scientists can complete their experiments.

At a homeless shelter, a Baltimore mother feeds her underweight toddler cereal, peanut butter and milk — and worries about nutrition aid running out before the child reaches a healthier size.

In his Reisterstown home, a veteran hobbled by injuries stemming from his Army service decades ago waits for a check to help offset medical bills.

As the federal government shutdown continues into another week, Marylanders are feeling the impact from the funding and services that have been cut or threatened. The state is home to about 300,000 federal employees, and wide-ranging furloughs at the Social Security Administration headquarters in Woodlawn, the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda and other workplaces make the effects of the shutdown particularly broad. Here's a look at some state residents feeling the pinch:

Jeff Mayse, behavioral neuroscience researcher

The federal government might sputter to a halt, but Jeff Mayse's rats continue to age.

They'll do it, though, away from the watchful eyes of the 26-year-old Mayse and his colleagues at a National Institute of Aging lab, among the many federally funded research programs halted as of Tuesday.

At the lab, located on the Bayview medical campus in East Baltimore, Mayse conducts cognition experiments on older rats — making time of the essence.

"It's a very small window," Mayse says of the 24- to 27-month-old span during which the rats are old enough to show age-related brain deficits but still healthy enough to perform the tasks he creates for them. "We don't even know how long this shutdown will last. We could have old animals that will die."

Technicians remain on site to feed the animals, but even a short interruption means the rats could forget the complicated tasks Mayse has taught them as a way of testing their ability to adapt responses to different stimuli.

"It's so massively disrupting," he said. "This is scientific research, and we're cutting off experiments in the middle."

Mayse, who is working on a doctorate at the Johns Hopkins University, focuses on the basal forebrain, which in humans is where degeneration occurs in patients with Alzheimer's and dementia. His research has implications for better understanding such diseases and perhaps finding ways to restore lost brain functions.

He and his colleagues — there are nine in the lab — represent just a fraction of the research that has been halted because of the shutdown: The NIA is one of 27 institutes and centers that make up the National Institutes of Health, the federal agency that is the world's largest funder of medical research.

The shutdown comes on the heels of some 10 years of flat funding, followed by a 5.5 percent cut earlier this year as mandated by sequestration, according to the NIH.

"It's always something," Mayse said. "Sequestration hit us really hard. It's creating a very difficult environment for what are already very difficult experiments."

Mayse has used the unwelcome time off to visit his wife, also a neuroscientist, who recently started postdoctoral work at Brown University in Providence, R.I. He's also had more time to write his thesis for the doctorate he hopes to complete next summer, though that, too, could be delayed.

"I do have more time to write," Mayse said, "but what I really need is to collect new data from the animals."

Lauren Nivens, mother of two

At a recent child wellness visit at Health Care for the Homeless, Lauren Nivens learned that her 15-month-old daughter, Morgan Carolina, isn't growing as quickly as she should. The child is underweight at just 17 pounds, her pediatrician says, and only 30 inches tall.

So to Nivens, the milk, bread, peanut butter and other foods she receives free through a federal program to feed the child have become even more crucial — at the same time that her continued access to them is in jeopardy.

Nivens said doctors and nurses have warned that if Morgan doesn't grow healthy and strong, her brain development and ability to learn could be affected.

Offices in Maryland that serve families on the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children — commonly known as WIC — have enough cash to provide benefits for the rest of the month. If the federal government stays closed longer, the 145,000 people in Maryland who depend on the program might have to look elsewhere for help.

"My daughter, she is underweight and striving to grow; it is important for me," said Nivens, 29, who is living at the emergency shelter, Sarah's Hope at Hannah More in Reisterstown.

"If my child doesn't get WIC, she's going to get sick, because she won't get the proper nutrition," Nivens said. "Food costs are high. I am one of those people who are struggling."

Nivens said her son, Sincere Clary, 5, shares the groceries the government provides for his sister. It's not much: Nivens receives three vouchers a month that combined provide three gallons of milk, some bottles of juice, a few loaves of bread and jars of peanut butter. She can also use the WIC checks for cereal, cheese and eggs.

Besides the WIC benefits, the mother, a Catonsville native, strings together an existence for her family on about $900 a month, including $500 in welfare and $400 in food stamps. She's already stayed more than five months at the emergency shelter and says she's in need of transitional housing.

Nivens said she lost her last housing about a year and a half ago after electric service was cut off for an outstanding bill of $4,800, which she could not pay after losing work as a certified medical assistant.

Gov. Martin O'Malley and his administration have pledged to find ways to minimize the shutdown's impact, using funds set aside to address sequestration cuts. The state could supplement the WIC program once federal funds are exhausted. Officials are deciding what to do.

Meanwhile, Nivens is taking courses at Strayer University toward an associate's degree in business management, hoping to one day support her children on her own.

"I put it in God's hands," she said. "I can't let my children see me break. When I am stressed, they're stressed. I go to sleep crying every night."

Donald Opper, veteran

Now retired, Donald Opper looks back with fondness and pride at a lifetime of government service — as an Army corporal during the Korean War era, and for 30 years as a systems analyst for the Social Security Administration.

But he has also lived through two federal government shutdowns. Opper, 79, was furloughed for about three weeks during the 1995-1996 shutdown and now finds his claim for veteran's benefits held up by the current impasse.

"I don't see the need for the shutdown if the government was run the way it should," he said.

For nearly six years, Opper has been trying to get compensation for knee and shoulder problems stemming from a jeep accident in 1956. He was based in Nuremberg with the Army Corps of Engineers and assigned to drive a sergeant around to "map all the bridges in Germany and surrounding countries and plan how to destroy them if the Russians attacked."

One winter day, the jeep hit a patch of ice and struck a tree, throwing the sergeant out — though he somehow wasn't injured. Opper, though, dislocated a shoulder and a bolt from the steering wheel plunged into his knee. He pulled it out himself and a doctor at the infirmary popped his arm back into his shoulder socket, but no one thought he needed to go to a hospital.

He ached for years — he can't lift anything overhead, and he has had continuing knee problems. Opper sought help from various groups in filing for compensation from the Veterans Administration and, finally, seemed to be getting somewhere with the assistance of a lawyer, Richard E. Geyer of Woodbine

An administrative judge ruled that Opper should receive compensation, Geyer said, and sent the case to the Baltimore regional office, which would determine the percentage of disability and amount of payment. And then the wait for action from the notoriously backlogged office began.

"Sixty days came and went — nothing," Opper said. "[Geyer] sent them a letter saying, I'll give you 30 more days. Thirty days passed [Sept. 28], and then the shutdown happened."

VA medical centers and clinics will remain open, and claims processing should continue as long as funds are available, but there is no overtime pay to help eliminate backlogs. Employee furloughs also mean that some call centers and hot lines will stop functioning, the agency says.

Still, Opper remains positive about his government service — and notes that his retirement annuity arrived on schedule Oct. 1. He is the second generation of his family to have worked at Social Security — his father moved the family here from Oklahoma in the 1930s to take a job in the early days of the agency. Opper meets every couple of months with his "Retirees and Wannabes" group from his Social Security days, and, despite their diminishing ranks, he keeps in touch with his Army buddies.

"I really enjoyed my government service. It was a pleasure," Opper said. Now he hopes the VA will come through for him as well. "It'll help. I'm on a fixed income now."

Melissa Ayres, furloughed Social Security Administration employee

It had been a tight several years for Melissa Ayres and her family, with her husband, Mike, out of work for 21/2 years after the recession hit the construction business and idled electricians like him.

They tried to stay ahead of their budget problems. They sold their house in Abingdon rather than risk possible foreclosure and now rent a home in Northeast Baltimore. They never bought themselves new clothes, although their growing kids would need them. They stopped going to restaurants or ordering takeout. Their austerity plan helped keep them afloat until Mike found work at the end of last year, albeit at half his previous salary.

And then Melissa Ayres, a team leader at Social Security headquarters, woke up Tuesday morning to the news: The government was shutting down and she was being furloughed indefinitely.

Recalling the stress of a one-paycheck household, Ayres, 37, said, "Facing the thought of going back to it just makes me nauseous. Every single moment you're thinking, 'How am I going to get out of it?'"

She has spent 12 years moving up the ranks at the Social Security Administration, starting as a service representative in field offices, then helping people with claims for such programs as disability benefits. Six years ago, she moved to the Woodlawn complex, where she leads a group that handles information technology-related systems that she says help "the people in the field offices get through the day."

Ayres said it is work she and her colleagues take to heart, often staying late to follow through on a problem, or coming in on Saturdays to make sure things run right.

"We have a very clear mission, and that is to serve some of the most disenfranchised parts of America," said Ayres, who at times has focused on Supplemental Security Income, the benefits for the low-income disabled. "People have such challenging situations, and as the person who is there to help them, you develop bonds."

It stings that "government worker" has become an epithet for some.

"People forget that when your parents retire or your aunt needs to get disability, we are the people who are taking care of your family members," Ayres said. "Let's step back before you start hurling the insults. But that's the tone of politics today."

While federal employees were paid retroactively after a previous shutdown, Ayres said she worries whether they would be this time, that she won't be able to make payments on her student loan or continue reducing the modest credit card debt incurred during her husband's unemployment — let alone save money.

"The plan was to sock away money to buy a house," she says wistfully.

But on Saturday, the House of Representatives approved and sent to the Senate a measure to retroactively pay 800,000 furloughed federal employees once the government reopens.

For now, their kids, ages 1, 6 and 8, are too young to burden with their job woes. For the two in school, it's just fun that mom, who previously had drop-off duties, now also picks them up.

"I have always been the primary earner, up until Monday," Ayres said. "Now I think, "What do I do to support my family?'"

Johnny Zuagar, furloughed Census Bureau worker

He's been furloughed, but it doesn't mean Johnny Zuagar isn't working.

Instead of sitting at home, the 33-year-old Census Bureau statistician has kept busy trying to influence the process that left his family without a source of income. For Zuagar, that has meant calling members of Congress, attending rallies in Washington and showing up at union meetings.

"I've been waking up every morning doing something," the Upper Marlboro resident said as he stood near a raucous rally of federal employees in the shadow of the U.S. Capitol on Friday. "I'm doing everything I can do to make sure this thing changes."

Zuagar — the father of a 2-year-old and an 11-month old — works on the Census Bureau's monthly retail sales report, a widely followed measure of economic strength. But when the lockout began, he snapped into his other role: leader of a local chapter of the American Federation of Government Employees.

The Suitland-based Census Bureau employs nearly 5,000 people in Maryland. The agency has furloughed all but about 30 of them.

And so Zuagar has been watching the latest budget debacle anxiously. Because the government operates on a two-week pay cycle, he hasn't missed a paycheck yet. But his next check — assuming that it arrives on time Oct. 15 — would be cut by at least half unless Congress approves retroactive pay. The measure to do so that the House passed Saturday is before the Senate.

Complicating the family's finances, Zuagar's wife is out of job. Because the federal government has frozen pay for three years, Zuagar said, the family's savings are "kind of low."

"It's a serious problem now, because you're making choices who to pay, who not to pay," he said as colleagues at the rally chanted for back pay. "You can never take lightly the morale effect. We could be made whole financially, but I think it's going to take years to get back the morale."

That's part of what compels Zuagar to call lawmakers and get involved, even though he's not getting paid. Because Census employees are spread across the country, most can't make it to Washington to put a face on what the furlough means for the federal workforce, he said.

But Zuagar can.

"There's a lot of uncertainty and a lot of fear," he said before rejoining the rally. "We feel we're just caught in the middle of something that's horrible."

Baltimore Sun reporters Yvonne Wenger and John Fritze contributed to this article.

jmarbella@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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