Federal workers breathe sigh of relief as shutdown comes to an end
Listen. Hear it?
That’s not the sound of President Trump’s wall being built, nor is it cheers from Democrats celebrating the end of that idea and the beginning of their vision, of new technology, drones, more personnel and heightened security at points of entry.
That’s the sound of federal workers – 800,000 nationwide – exhaling over the news that the government will reopen for three weeks, meaning backpay, in theory, will be sent soon to those affected by the 35-day shutdown, the longest in American history.
Then what? The deadline to finalize an agreement on how to secure our southern border is Feb. 15. After that, funding would dry up again.
For now, though, listen.
“I am breathing a sigh of relief, just because it’s a step in the right direction,” said Andre Jean, the regional chair of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. “We as an organization hope this is a good sign and things will continue to work.”
Reading between the lines – to Jean’s skepticism – was an easy task, and it didn’t take long for that skepticism to spill out. After going weeks without a check, payday would be coming soon, he was told.
“That is my understanding, but I’m not in charge of that section of operation, so I don’t know,” Jean said. “I’m not in charge of how checks will be given out.”
Earlier Friday, before Trump’s announcement, Rep. Annie Kuster met with nervous union representatives and federal employees affected by the government shutdown, those connected to air traffic control, the Internal Revenue Service and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
For Sandy Smith, the expiration date on packages of meat had become required reading.
Not for freshness. For savings.
Smith is a TSA agent at Manchester-Boston Regional Airport, forced to work without pay because of the importance of her role with respect to national security.
For more than a month, she no longer had the luxury of picking the best meat, the kind that wouldn’t spoil soon after she got it home. The closer the deadline came to rotten, the more appetizing the meat became.
Or at least the more affordable.
“I went to Shaw’s yesterday and I went to the meat section,” Smith said Friday. “I asked for whatever you have for discounted meat. I have to cut where I have to cut. That’s 50 percent off. I just have to eat it right away.”
We spoke near the elevator, a few feet from the conference room at Kuster’s downtown headquarters. Earlier we sat at a long, glossy wooden table, with Concord’s skyline and traffic outside and strange stories about mortgages and electric bills and frustration inside.
Kuster allowed the Monitor in to hear real stories about people whose lives had changed because of this historic stalemate between Democrats and Republicans.
She made sure to inject an undercurrent of blame toward the Republicans, citing the fact that she had voted 10 times in the House to reopen the government.
She mentioned the potential for a breakthrough in the morning, before Trump’s announced that a deal had been reached.
Kuster cited a need for what she called “21st century border security,” the Democrats’ talking points about drones, beefed-up security at points of entry, more supervision at the border with Mexico and updated technology.
“We need a mature, rational solution,” the congresswoman said.
Meanwhile, people like Smith, who lives in Sandown, had emerged as the faces of the crisis, relaying problems that she had never encountered before.
Her husband is receiving worker’s compensation – $480 per week – after he suffered an accident at work. Before Friday’s news, she said money earmarked for one of her children at college would be needed for other things.
“We have to worry about heating bills,” Smith said.
Smith said she had applied for unemployment insurance but was rejected because – get this – she was working. That was just one example from a stable of catch 22’s that became part of the landscape of this crisis.
No unemployment insurance. No dipping into your retirement savings, in this case your thrift savings plan, if you were still providing a service. No heating assistance because that depended on last year’s earnings, which, of course, were not affected.
Tales of woe were everywhere. Jean bought a house six years ago, has three kids and college loans to pay off, for both himself and his wife.
“Everything is being cut back significantly,” Jean said. “I have to make sure the mortgage is going to get paid and I have to call the mortgage company because I’m not sure if they’re going to let me move it back another month, make sure there’s enough in the bank for car loans, health insurance, dental insurance.”
Andrew Acerra uprooted his life, leaving a job in New York to train in Oklahoma and Nashua to become a certified air traffic controller. He has two more years left, could still be rejected and is low on the pay scale.
“I spent a lot of money uprooting my life and coming up here,” Acerra explained. “I don’t make a lot of money as a trainee, so I live paycheck to paycheck. I paid rent for next month and I’m trying to figure out how to do it again if this thing continues. I had to contact creditors, my leasing company for my car. They’ve worked with me to delay payments, but I can’t expect that to go on forever.”
A little after 2 p.m., the president announced that the government would reopen, at least for three weeks. People like Acerra, Smith and Jean suddenly had some stress relief, a financial reprieve, another lease on normalcy.
At least until the day after Valentine’s Day. But not everyone is so sure their hearts won’t be broken again. Federal workers are waiting for their last two paychecks, with the next one due two weeks from Friday.
“The current state of affairs in Washington has been dysfunctional as far as funding the FAA is concerned,” Jean said.
Asked about his degree of optimism, he added, “All I know is the president says we will get paid as soon as possible, so I know as much as you.
“Ask me again in two weeks.”