When it comes to the work she does, Chander Kanta is indistinguishable from a regular Environmental Protection Agency employee. For the last five years, the 70-year-old administrative assistant has put in 40-hour weeks at the EPA’s campus in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina. The income she receives, about $2,000 a month, pays for everything: her mortgage, her car insurance, her grocery bill. But because of the government showdown, she hasn’t received a paycheck for more than a month.
There’s one key difference, though. When the government eventually re-opens, regular EPA employees will receive back pay for the time they weren’t working. Kanta will not. That’s because she’s one of approximately 900 enrollees in the EPA’s little-known Senior Environmental Employment (SEE) Program, a grant-funded initiative that allows retired and unemployed older Americans to work at the agency in exchange for salary, benefits, vacation, and sick leave.
Six national non-profit organizations currently administer SEE grants, and enrollees are considered employees of those organizations, not the EPA. Thus, they’re in the same boat as government contract workers from private companies, who also don’t usually receive back pay when a government shutdown ends. In an e-mailed statement on Wednesday, the EPA confirmed that all 900 seniors in the SEE Program are currently furloughed. The agency did not answer questions about whether they would receive back pay.
Kanta isn’t counting on it, and she’s worried. “Every moment I close my eyes, I think about it,” she said through tears in a phone interview. “Where will I get the money? What will I do? I’m all alone here. My children and my family are in India and Canada. They say, ‘Come here.’ But I don’t want to go anywhere. I just want to live. I just want to work.”
America is facing a retirement crisis. Working hard for four decades no longer guarantees a comfortable coda to one’s life. According to the National Council on Aging, one-third of all senior households either live paycheck to paycheck, as Kanta does, or are in debt after monthly expenses. More than 25 million Americans age 60 and over make less than $30,000 per year. At the same time, rampant age discrimination in hiring has made it difficult for many unemployed seniors to find jobs that could eventually allow them to retire.
The SEE Program was created to address such problems. In 1984, Congress passed the Environmental Programs Assistance Act, which allowed the EPA to partner with nonprofits “to utilize the talents of older Americans.” Through grant funding, Americans aged 55 and over could work to assist the EPA with “projects of pollution prevention, abatement, and control.” (The U.S. Census Bureau defines seniors as 65 and over, while some organizations like the AARP define them as 50 and over. The EPA’s program defines them as 55 and over.)
Today, SEE enrollees work in EPA offices across the country as receptionists, accountants, engineers, and grant specialists, among other positions. And though the paychecks are generally small—the hourly rate usually ranges from $10 to $15 an hour—people who’ve worked with SEE employees say their presence is large. “They were amazing,” said Judith Enck, who ran the EPA’s Region 2 during the Obama administration. One SEE enrollee, she recalled, was a woman in her 80s who lived alone in New Jersey, but worked from the EPA office in New York as an administrative assistant. “She would come to work even in horrible, horrible weather,” Enck said. “She was the most dedicated person.”
One reason SEE enrollees are so dedicated is that many of them live alone, said Joon Bang, president of the National Asian Pacific Center on Aging, one of the nonprofits that administers SEE grants. “You’re talking about group of folks who not only rely on this program to fill a financial need, but a lot of them are seniors who feel a sense of community and belonging and purpose though this program,” he said. Now, because of the extended government shutdown, “There’s a feeling of isolation they’re experiencing.”
Kanta confirms this. “When I go to [the] office, I hardly feel lonely or alone,” she said. “You meet your friends, you’re busy the whole day at work.” But after more than a month without going to work, Kanta said she’s started to feel physically and emotionally isolated. It’s a familiar feeling for her—she’s an immigrant from India, and has lived alone in the United States since 2010. But it’s not something she’s felt much since the joined the EPA in 2014, the same year she became an American citizen.
During the shutdown, Kanta has kept busy by speaking to her family on WhatsApp—her daughter lives in India, and her son in Canada—and checking up on other SEE enrollees. “I try to call all of them to talk to them,” Kanta said. “They’re very upset.” But now that she’s alone all the time, she finds herself plagued with worry about what might happen if something happened to her. What if she were to experience a medical emergency? Who would be there to help her?
And then there’s the problem of the vanishing paychecks. “I need money,” Kanta said. “How can you just do without it?” Unlike the federal employees that Kanta sits next to, she and the other SEE enrollees likely won’t ever get paid for this lost time. “I went through 2 shutdowns during Obama administration but they were much shorter,” Enck said. “The SEE employees did not get retroactive pay.”
For Kanta, this means fresh food is nearly out of the question. She’s been cooking mostly dried lentils and rice. Last week, she received a $20 donation from a friend. “I was thinking of going to buy some bananas,” she said.
Another SEE enrollee, an administrative assistant in D.C. who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution at work, has more of a financial cushion than Kanta because her husband has a full-time job. But the loss of her $2,200 monthly wages means her family is “unable to buy the groceries we would normally buy, or put gas in our car.” Last week, she said, she started crying in a 7-Eleven after getting a notification that her checking account was overdrawn. “I had to transfer money in from my savings, and it just, emotionally, it all hit me,” she said.
What’s happening to SEE enrollees is happening to millions of other people across the country. “The federal government is effectively the nation’s largest employer of low-wage workers,” David Dayen pointed out in The New Republic this month. “It that pay less than $15 an hour...” That’s millions of workers who might have to chalk January up as a loss, unless Senate Democrats and protesters are able to convince the Republicans to promise back pay for contractors, as Congress has already done for federal employees.
SEE program enrollees aren’t the only low-income seniors negatively affected by the shutdown. Housing assistance, food assistance, and public transportation assistance programs for the elderly have been scaled back, if not halted altogether. And if the shutdown drags on much longer, the Department of Agriculture may run out of money for the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps, which serves approximately 4.8 million people over the age of 60.
The treatment of SEE enrollees reveals a distressing truth about how America values its older population, says the D.C.-based administrative assistant. When the government eventually reopens, and she returns to the office, all the younger people around her will receive a check for thousands of dollars. But she probably won’t get a penny. “We’re just like federal employees,” she said. “We do the same work. But they’re not talking about that. It’s like we’re nothing.”