Even With Government Back Open, Contractors With Disabilities Weary
ATLANTA — For Christmas this year, 49-year-old Tawana Rochester got a $14.99 Walmart bathrobe.
That’s all the Lithonia family felt they could afford with a government shutdown looming and their only source of income being a government contract held by husband Melvin Rochester, a veteran with a disability.
President Donald Trump agreed last Friday to re-open the government for three weeks as politicians continue to negotiate on a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border. But the Rochester family, who spoke to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution before the temporary reopening was announced, is still out the nearly $2,000 he would have earned. The income loss has left the family in an active foreclosure on their home of 20 years.
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“We were able to put a little something on everything, but we haven’t been able to catch up,” said 51-year-old Melvin Rochester.
He is one of the hundreds of thousands of federal contractors who aren’t sure if they’ll ever get backpay from the record 35-day government shutdown. Federal employees usually get retroactive pay, but private contractors typically do not get a check for the time they missed due to a shutdown.
Rochester is one of the 28 contractors with the Marietta-based Tommy Nobis Center whose life was disrupted by the shutdown. The center has put more than 25,000 people with physical and developmental disabilities to work since opening 40 years ago under the name of the first man ever drafted by the Atlanta Falcons. The organization has raised $4,100 on GoFundMe to help its workers affected by the shutdown.
Dave Ward, CEO of the center, said 23 of the center’s 28 contractors have disabilities of some sort. The workers mostly do administrative work at the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Housing and Urban Development through the nonprofit SourceAmerica.
SourceAmerica said in a news release that they have more than 2,000 people with disabilities on contracts throughout the country.
“We’re talking about people with disabilities you can see and disabilities you can’t see,” Ward said.
He said his contractors would have lost health insurance if the shutdown had gone into February, leaving them with the more-expensive COBRA coverage.
Their hourly pay ranges from $10 to $18, Ward said. “I don’t know that these folks have money saved.”
Melvin Rochester, who said he served as a radio officer in the U.S. Army from 1989 to 1992 before receiving a traumatic brain injury, now loves being the executive assistant to the deputy regional director of HUD’s southeast region.
Rochester said he gets an additional $743 a month from the military, but all that goes to bills. He said the bank initially denied them assistance with their mortgage, and with two car notes and a 14-year-old who “eats like he’s a grown man,” the shutdown has meant a different way of life.
“It’s rough to look at your son and tell him you can’t have the latest pair of jeans or tennis shoes,” Rochester said. “It’s rough to tell my wife we can’t go to the movies, have a date night, because we don’t have it.”
His wife Tawana Rochester, who was laid off in October, is disappointed that the president brought them into the fight over the southern border. “We have walls that we have to build too, but he’s not looking at our walls. What about the walls of our home?”
© 2019 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
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