Jacinda says she has “no idea” what her family will do if the government shutdown continues past January. Her husband’s last paycheck was Dec. 28 and, like many federal workers, he’s unlikely to get his next one at the end of this week. He may not get the one after that, due at the end of January, either.
“Our rent is due, the electric bill is due, our cellphones are now past due,” she says.
Her husband is a TSA officer in Portland, Ore., but he’s not speaking publicly because the Transportation Security Administration forbids personnel to do so.
“We are a paycheck-to-paycheck family,” Jacinda, 36, says. We’re not using her last name because she fears he could be fired.
Jacinda says she has paid some of her rent — less than half — so she can save what she can for food and gas. After all, she says, “my husband has to drive to work every day.”
The government shutdown is increasingly straining employees who are essential to keeping the nation’s aviation system safe and running. Many at the TSA, such as Jacinda’s family, don’t have savings to fall back on and wonder how they’ll make ends meet if they don’t get paychecks or backpay soon.
Jacinda, who wrote into NPR, says the shutdown is putting a lot of pressure on her family. Her husband has to go to work and he’s not getting a paycheck, “which is ridiculous,” she says. Even more ridiculous, Jacinda says, is that he came home the other day with instructions on how to file for unemployment while he’s still working 40 hours a week.
Her husband’s salary recently was bumped up to $40,000 a year, Jacinda says. “We are not getting rich, but we could at least feel secure.” The couple has two kids — a 6-month-old girl and a boy who will soon be 4 years old. They were planning to buy a few presents and decorations to celebrate her son’s birthday at the end of the month, but they can’t do that now.
She says three years ago, her husband’s TSA job helped the family “claw out of poverty,” and she now fears the shutdown will set them back. “I feel this sneaking anxiety that it all can be gone,” she says. Her biggest concern is losing her home.
“I’m scared and I’m trying to be OK,” she says as she fights back tears. “I can’t be sad every day for my kids and I can’t be stressed out because it affects how I parent.”
Christine Vitel is a single mom who has worked for the TSA at Chicago’s O’Hare airport for more than 16 years. With a son in college, she says she’s trying to figure out how she will pay his tuition. On top of that, she just bought a house. “I’m not going to be able to pay my mortgage,” she says.
Vitel says she worked very hard to improve her credit so she could buy the house but now fears losing it.
“I’m going to either lose [my house] or my credit rating is going to go way down and my interest rate is going to go up,” she says.
“A lot of the officers, they live paycheck to paycheck,” says Janis Casey, president of the Chicago local chapter of the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents TSA employees. She notes that they are among the lowest-paid federal government employees, averaging about $36,000 to $43,000 per year, with starting pay only in the mid-20s.
Air travel as a whole also is feeling the pinch of the partial government shutdown. New aircraft are not being inspected and are not being certified to fly. Security screeners — such as Jacinda’s husband and Vitel — and other employees deemed essential are working but are not being paid. And for these federal workers and their families, the situation could get dire rather quickly.
It’s not much better for higher-paid essential government workers either, such as air traffic controllers.
“It’s a very high-stress job, and you need to be on your game at all times.”
A toll on workers’ psyche
Mick Devine is with the National Air Traffic Controllers Association in Boston. He says the shutdown is forcing controllers to make tough financial decisions and it weighs on them heavily.
“There is a concern that as this goes on, the human factors aspect of the shutdown will take a toll on the psyche and concentration level of our members,” he says. He adds that they do the best job that they can each and every day.
Another concern is that nearly 20 percent of the FAA’s 10,000 air traffic controllers are eligible to retire, and union leaders say some might do that rather than continue to work during the shutdown.
There also are concerns that many of the nation’s 51,000 TSA employees will eventually quit and find work elsewhere rather than continue to work without pay. Already, a greater number than usual are calling in sick.
And only some FAA safety inspectors are working.
Capt. Dennis Tajer, a pilot for American Airlines and a spokesman for the Allied Pilots Association, says many planes are not being inspected and pilot training is not being certified.
“We’re starting to see the beginning tremors of a situation that will only get worse over time,” he says. Right now he says air travel is able to maintain a margin of safety and security, “but every day another player is pulled off the field and it comes some point where the game cannot be played properly.”
At O’Hare, air travelers such as Erica Westgard of Indialantic, Fla., have expressed concerns.
“If TSA is affected and lines do get longer, work could get sloppier,” she says, “and that’s always a concern for safety.”
But Ray Ortiz, who just arrived on a business trip from New York, says he hasn’t seen any ill effects from the shutdown yet.
“I actually showed up early because I thought the wait times might be very long, but it was actually really short today,” he says.
Nonetheless, Ortiz worries that if the shutdown continues, there could be a tipping point where safety and security could be compromised.
“We have enough things to worry about when we’re traveling, and to fear for our security, or even worse, our lives,” he says. “That puts us in a predicament that I don’t think any of us want to be in.”
On week three of the shutdown, Jacinda is angry. “It’s not fair that our livelihood is on the line” because President Trump wants to make a point, she says. “You shouldn’t play with people’s lives,” she says. And the president’s address to the nation on Tuesday evening to make his case for building a wall on the U.S. border with Mexico only made her angrier, she says. “I don’t remember agreeing to sign my family up to be part of the sacrifice he’s willing to make for his cause,” she says. All she wants, she says, is for her husband to get paid, “so we can take care of our family.”