Federal workers are bearing the burden of the Trump shutdown

By Don McIntosh

“I can pay the minimum on my credit cards, and I can skip utility bills,” says Trang Kim, a 16-year TSA employee. “I’m just worried about my mortgage.” Kim, a lead worker and behavioral detection specialist at the Portland airport, is also regional vice president of AFGE Local 1127. She came to work on her day off Jan. 10 to take part in a union-sponsored airport protest against the government shutdown.

Transportation Security Administration (TSA) agents at the Portland airport say they’ve been getting more thank-yous from the traveling public since they began working without pay Dec. 22. But sympathy won’t pay the bills. On Jan. 11, with the partial government shutdown in its third week, they and the rest of the estimated 800,000 federal employees missed their first paycheck. About 380,000 of the affected federal workers have been furloughed, while 420,000 are working without pay — those whose jobs involve human safety, the protection of property, or other work designated as essential by their agencies.

If the shutdown is hitting TSA screeners the hardest, it’s because they’re some of the federal government’s lowest paid employees: Most make $16 to $19 an hour. Portland TSA agent Greg Biel says one of his co-workers has begun driving for Uber in off-hours, while another is selling plasma. Biel is president of American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) Local 1127, which represents 3,000 TSA employees in Oregon, Colorado, Idaho, Wyoming, Montana, and Utah. On Jan. 10, he and other AFGE officers passed out fliers at the airport asking the public to call members of Congress to call for an end to the shutdown.

The shutdown is a partial shutdown because most federal agencies remain open (and are funded through Sept. 30). But nine Cabinet departments and a number of smaller agencies have been without funding since Dec. 22. That’s because President Donald Trump said he wouldn’t sign any more spending bills unless they include $5.7 billion for a wall along the border with Mexico — a wall he long insisted that Mexico would pay for.

“If we don’t get what we want,” Trump told Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi in a televised meeting Trump called on Dec. 11, “I will shut down the government.… I will take the mantle. I will be the one to shut it down. I’m not going to blame you for it.”

Republicans were in charge of the House and Senate the last two years, and at no time did they vote to fund a wall. Only after Democrats won back a majority in the House did Trump threaten to shut the government unless he got funding for the wall.

AFGE, the largest of the federal employee unions, likened that to hostage taking.

A CBS News poll found that 59 percent of Americans — and 84 percent of Democrats — are against building a wall.

Congress could end the shutdown by approving funding for the agencies, but overriding a presidential veto would take a two-thirds majority in each chamber.

What about unemployment benefits? Not so simple

Federal workers who are working without pay aren’t eligible for unemployment benefits, because they aren’t considered unemployed. Meanwhile, those on furlough are eligible for unemployment benefits, but if, as is widely assumed, they later get full back pay, they’re supposed to repay whatever benefits they receive. David Gerstenfeld, administrator of the Oregon Unemployment Insurance Division, said his agency won’t try to collect the “overpayments” but they’ll count against whatever benefits workers are entitled to if they apply for unemployment benefits again in the next five years.

How to help workers affected by the shutdown

Portland-based Labor’s Community Service Agency, a union-sponsored charity, plans to deliver 100 food boxes to TSA officers at a planned Jan. 18 airport event, and is collecting donations from unions and union members to provide relief for workers affected by the federal shutdown.

  • Individuals can donate online at lcsaportland.org
  • Unions can mail donations to LCSA at 9955 SE Washington St. Suite 211, 97216.

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