As shutdown drags on, unpaid workers struggle
Government employees in Connecticut are caught in standoff over border wall
Ever since the partial government shutdown started on Dec. 22, Janine Murphy has reported to her job as an electronics technician at Bradley International Airport in Windsor Locks without the certainty of when a paycheck will come.
As politicians in Washington, D.C., battle over a border wall with Mexico, Murphy is growing increasingly anxious about how she will pay her bills.
“For me, where it is really starting to hit home, I recently had an oil delivery to my house for heating oil this winter and I had to put it on my credit card, which is something I don’t normally do,” Murphy said. “Because it is on my credit card, there’s interest I know I have to pay. I’m starting to pay for groceries with my credit card.”
She adds: “I worked pretty hard to get my credit card down to nothing, and now I am driving them back up because they are more source of income at the moment.”
Murphy, wholives in So. Hadley, Mass., and her co-worker Andy Romano, who’s also been on the job, are becoming increasingly frustrated trying to understand how their livelihoods and personal finances got caught up in a nasty, national political fight.
“We serve the flying public,” said Romano, who lives in West Hartford. “We keep the skies safe. Something like a border wall or a fortified security on our southern border has absolutely nothing to do with our jobs so why are we getting involved in it? So, it really is a head-scratcher for us, and its concerning. It should be totally separate from us.”
In addition to mortgage debt, Romano and his wife have $20,000 in student loans to pay off, plus groceries and credit card payments.
“Assuming the shutdown gets extended, I’m going to have to utilize my credit card and basically charge everything and maybe take out a personal loan,” Romano said.
Across the country on Friday, government workers missed their first paychecks as the shutdown entered its 21st day. Some posted pictures of pay stubs on Twitter, railing against the standoff in Washington.
“I saw the zeros in my pay stub today, and it’s a combination of reality setting in and just sadness,” air traffic controller Josh Maria told The Associated Press after tweeting a screenshot of his pay stub. “We’re America. We can do better than this.”
The shutdown is starting to strain the national aviation system, with unpaid security screeners staying home or opting for temporary work elsewhere.
Miami International Airport is providing the most visible evidence that the shutdown, at the least, is disrupting air travel.
Facing double the usual number of absences among unpaid Transportation Security Administration screeners, the Miami airport will close one of its concourses most of Saturday, Sunday and Monday to make sure TSA can adequately staff the remaining security checkpoints.
So far, Connecticut airports have not experienced a shortage of screeners.
Meanwhile, the national union representing 10,000 air traffic controllers — who also are working without pay during the shutdown — sued the government Friday, claiming they are illegally being denied pay.
“I think more and more of this crisis is going to land in the courts,” U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn, said Friday. “As this goes into the 21st day and the 22nd day, I would expect more and more litigation by workers going to court to get their paychecks given to them. There is no reason we should be in this situation.”
Murphy spoke at a press conference Friday at Tweed-New Haven Airport, and was joined by New Haven Mayor Toni Harp and Tim Larson, executive director of the airport.
Harp said the shutdown — the result of what she called an “obstinate Oval Office” — is rippling into the community, hitting businesses patronized by federal employees.
“It’s a real life problem for the local businesses where these families would otherwise do their shopping,” Harp said.
Murphy dismissed Trump’s threat to declare a national emergency to secure money for the border wall.
“I don’t think the courts will allow him to do that because it would be illegal and unconstitutional to try to break a legislative stalemate by declaring a national emergency,” Murphy said.
Dennis Amato, a veteran electronics technician at Tweed, said January is a tough month for his household when tallying up the bills that must be paid.
“Our taxes for the home are due this month,” said Amato, 62. “It’s a heavy month between taxes and insurance, so I have an outlay of $7,500 that I have to cover this month.”
As Murphy criticized the shutdown in New Haven, U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal met with representatives from a dozen craft breweries around the state to learn how the shutdown was affecting their businesses.
The effect on the growing craft brew business is the result of the closure of the federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, a little-known agency that is responsible for signing off on everything from applications for new breweries to approving new labels and recipes with unusual ingredients for craft beers. Without those approvals, brewers can’t launch new products — some of which are already in tanks being brewed.
Asked what message he wanted to convey to the president and Republican leadership, Blumenthal said he wanted them to understand that “it’s not just affecting federal employees.”
“It’s prohibiting businesses from innovation and economic activities,” Blumenthal said.
In Danbury, at the Federal Correctional Institution, Andrew Ueberroth, president of AFGE Local 1661, which represents 259 correction officers, teachers, cooks, nurses and other workers at the Federal Correctional Institution at Danbury, said employees are considered essential and must report to work.
Union members have told him that they expect to run out of money in the next couple of weeks and will start looking for part-time work.
Pat Wynne, a correction officer, said he’s digging into savings but, at least so far, avoiding tapping his 401(k) retirement account or borrowing money on his credit card.
On Friday nights, he said, he and his wife usually go to a movie and a restaurant but this Friday, “it’s sandwiches and Netflix,” he said.
Wynne, a 12-year employee at the prison and an officer of the government employees union, commutes more than 80 miles a day from his home in Hamden. As a result, he’s paying to work for the federal government, he said.
“It’s always in my mind,” Wynne said. “How am I going to cover the mortgage? How am I going to make the car payment?”
At Bradley, Murphy and Romano say they are committed to ensuring safe travel for air passengers but admit that working for free has taken a hit on morale. They will be paid, eventually, for the hours they have worked during the shutdown but there is no telling when that will happen.
“There’s the off person saying, ‘Well, don’t worry, you’re going to get paid eventually,’” Murphy said. “But I wanted to ask that individual: Howwould you feel if I told you, ‘I want you to work and I’ll pay you eventually. I’m not going to tell you when.’ How do you pay your bills and your taxes? How do you survive? How do you get to sleep at night and feel comfortable?”
Courant Staff Writers Stephen Singer and Steven Goode contributed to this story. A report from the Associated Press was included.
Contact Kenneth R. Gosselin at kgos[email protected]
“We’re here to keep the airways safe,” says federal employee Dennis Amato, 62, of Guilford, about his job in landing systems and electronics at Tweed-New Haven Airport. Amato has continued to work without a paycheck and is one of thirty employees at Tweed affected by the shutdown.
Curt Cameron, left, of Hooker Brewery talks with Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal before a press conference discussing the production and distribution delays resulting from the shutdown of the federal agencies that oversee their operations.
“There’s no reason we should be in this situation,” says Sen. Chris Murphy on the 21st day of the partial government shutdown on Friday. Murphy was joined New Haven Mayor Toni Harp, from left, federal worker Dennis Amato, Executive Director of Tweed-New Haven Airport Authority Tim Larson, and airport manager Jeremy Nielson for a press conference at Tweed-New Haven Regional Airport to discuss the shutdown’s impact.