A small group took to the sidewalk along West State of Franklin Road on Tuesday to protest the shutdown of the federal government. (Ron Campbell/Johnson City Press)
The honking of horns from motorists traveling along West State of Franklin Road late Tuesday morning drowned out the sound of the ongoing construction on East Tennessee State University’s new parking garage.
Other passers-by took a more silent approach to show their support of the small group of protesters gathered along the sidewalk in front of Regions Bank, giving a thumbs up as they drove by.
The group assembled to protest the shutdown of the federal government, which is now in its third week, and to bring awareness to the impact the shutdown has had on the nation’s military veterans, including those at the nearby Veterans Affairs Medical Center at Mountain Home.
Johnson City resident Lisa Olterman, an employee of the VA and with the American Federation of Government Employees Local 1687, organized the afternoon protest. She said the planning for the rally began a few weeks ago.
“We’re here today to protest and rally our community to support our federal employees here at the VA, as well as across the country, by calling congressmen, calling our representatives and begging them to do the right thing and stop this shutdown and get our federal workers back to work and start paying our veterans the benefits that they deserve,” Olterman said. “They served our country and, if it weren’t for them, we wouldn’t be here, so we really want everybody in this community to get together and rally behind our federal employees and start making those phone calls to stop this shutdown.”
Olterman, who has 33 years of federal service, also said she knows first-hand the impact a shutdown can have on federal employees. Olterman said she and her husband were part of the last shutdown that occurred 17 years ago, adding that neither was paid for 21 days.
“I know the hardship personally that it’s causing on the federal employees across the country, so we’re just here to support them as well as support our veterans here,” Olterman said.
The protesters held signs that read “Stop the Shutdown,” “Stop Furloughs,” “Federal Employees Want to Work” and “Pay the Vets.” Among the group was Janice Bowden, who said this is the second furlough she has experienced. However, she said her participation in the rally was not about her but about others who may be impacted by the shutdown.
“I’m afraid it’s going to affect food stamps, people’s Social Security checks, things that really, really matter,” Bowden said.
Fellow protester Bruce Dotson, president of the Upper East Tennessee Central Labor Council, the local branch of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations, said he was present to support his brother, who filed a benefits claim several years ago and is still waiting for it to be processed, as well as concerns over his personal finances.
“This shutdown is eventually going to affect workers at all levels across the country,” Dotson said. “For me personally, I’m retired. I’m 65 years old. My concern personally is my retirement money is in the stock market, and where’s the stock market going to go? There’s millions of us out there that are sitting in that same situation.”
Like Olterman, Dotson said he was also out to encourage members of the community to contact lawmakers and urge them to make efforts to end the shutdown.
“I’m out there making people think, that they’ll call people like Congressman (Phil) Roe,” Dotson said. “Congressman Roe, all indications are, he was a supporter of the shutdown. He and people like Congresswoman Marsha Blackburn brought this on and they can bring it to a conclusion, and they need to go to work and get that done.”
The protest got under way about 11 a.m. and, at around noon, the group was joined by VA employee and veteran Larry Garland. Garland said his participation in the rally was all about supporting his fellow military veterans.
“To sum it up into one statement, speaking for myself and other veterans, if America would just ask ‘How much different would my life be today if there were no veterans?’ ” he said. “These guys, myself included, we signed a contract to serve America, up to and including our life. Many of them are damaged, and this particular facility here helps take care of their lives. I just feel like it’s really wrong for our government to neglect us.”
Dan Snyder, associate director of the Mountain Home VAMC, said VA officials did not have a comment on the rally, but Snyder said the federal government shutdown has had no impact on patient care at the facility.
“Patient care has continued without a hitch,” Snyder said.
Snyder said this is because of advanced appropriations the VA receives federally. However, Snyder said the center has felt the impact of the shutdown. He said around 30 people in the VA’s Information Resource Management Service department have been affected, with four of these employees being furloughed and the remainder have been “excepted,” meaning they are continuing to work without pay.