Federal employees went without their paychecks Friday due to the government shut down.
Sparked by President Donald Trump’s demand for funding for a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, the longest-running partial government shut down has left roughly 800,000 employees without pay — with “essential” government employees showing up to work in spite of it, while the rest are furloughed and looking for other ways to make ends meet.
While the House and Senate voted to give workers back pay whenever the government reopens, some employees still are worried when that day could come.
As an air traffic controller, Bill Gentry is an essential employee. President of the Cleveland Center’s union in Oberlin, he said his phone has been ringing nonstop with calls from union members who are struggling to make ends meet. The center’s ZOB union represents 366 air traffic controllers and some engineers.
“It sucks, I’ve had very little sleep in the last two weeks,” he said. “Everybody else across the country is staying up late — we do our air traffic control here and then my phone hasn’t stopped (ringing) with somebody asking a question or worried about something.”
A controller for the past 27 years, first hired at the Oberlin tower in 2002, this isn’t Gentry’s first time through a shutdown, but it is the longest. And with a job that requires concentration — monitoring air traffic patterns anywhere from five miles from the airport to all airspace — a paycheck isn’t something they want to worry about, he said.
“It’s not a good feeling and like I said for a stressful job that I have to be worried about when our paycheck coming is not a good thing,” he said.
Except for six new trainees who are furloughed, all of the center’s controllers are considered essential and have been working the past 22 days — including overtime — without pay. Some are picking up side jobs, others are taking out low or no-interest loans offered to federal workers to pay the bills.
“Overall right now with my controllers, the biggest problem is child care,” he said. “They don’t have the money to pay anybody.”
He said the air traffic manager is looking into opening a child care center in the building, but will have to look at the licensing involved. He said Friday’s paystubs were blank, listing “government shutdown” for the 80 hours his members worked.
He added a lot of the people furloughed, including technicians or the building’s front office staff, affect “essential” employee’s jobs. A new nationwide data program upgrading how controllers talk to pilots via computer systems rather than over airwaves came to a “screeching halt,” he said, costing money as its rollout is pushed back.
While banks are offering loan rates, some restaurants are offering food. Even the union’s Canadian counterpart bought pizza Friday night for all of the towers along the border.
Gentry said citizens who want to help federal workers can contact their representatives.
“We’re very concerned,” he said. “If it continues we have a lot of unforeseeable problems, everybody’s prepared for an emergency, but no one’s prepared for the government to shut down.”
On the other side, nonessential employees, like staff at the NASA Glenn Research Center in Cleveland are furloughed. Some are worried about the lost pay to make ends meet, while others, like Susan Wrbanek and her husband John, both of Sheffield, have money set aside in event of a shutdown.
“We’re actually doing just fine,” she said. “I can’t speak for other people but it’s really not that problem for us. Every place we’ve worked we’ve always tried to save and prepare for that.”
A research scientist with the center for close to 19 years, she said this isn’t much different than other shutdowns.
Government has had its squabbles since the beginning, she said — noting missed paychecks were a concern for soldiers during the Revolutionary War — and that the country has had problems at its southern border for decades.
“The feelings I have are probably a little different than some of the other people,” Wrbanek said. “We have relatives who are victims of crimes committed by illegal (immigrants) coming into this country and several years ago we witnessed a bad auto accident caused by an illegal and so for us, since we try to save and prepare for the fact that shutdowns sometimes happen — one of the things we’re a little more concerned about, the Border Patrol agents are federal employees too, and everyday they put their lives on the line … For me, having a delayed paycheck where those people are risking their lives trying to keep us safe, I just I don’t see the equivalence.”
Wrbanek said she knows for some employees the shutdown is more dire, but for those who haven’t been through it before, said the important thing is to “stay positive.”
“The Senate and the President have already agreed that our back pay will happen once the House finishes their part of the funding dispute and we’ve always gotten back pay before. When you have a friend who works for a company that maybe goes out of business or something, their pay stops … You have to remember it’s not you, it’s not your coworkers or anything like that, it’s just what happens in the way we work things in this country and to just stay positive and we’ll be happy to get back to work when we do.”
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