It’s hard to say what tomorrow will bring for tens of thousands of Transportation Security Administration employees conducting screenings on travelers in airports around the country. But it likely won’t be a paycheck.
Now, entering its third week, the partial government shutdown brings a significant financial blow to federal employees across the country who typically await their biweekly paychecks to help make ends meet. Among them are TSA employees, who are some of the lowest-paid federal workers and have been working without guaranteed pay during one of the busiest travel periods of the year. These workers tell MONEY that the growing length of the shutdown brings a fresh wave of anxiety as some of them prepare for their first pay period since the federal government partially shut down on Dec. 22 to come and pass, without a paycheck.
“As far as we’re concerned, a lot of us still live paycheck to paycheck,” says Victor Payes, a TSA officer based in Los Angeles who represents his colleagues in his local chapter of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) union. “It’s hard to plan a budget for these types of crises for any extended period of time.”
These TSA workers are some of the 420,000 federal employees deemed “essential” and therefore have to work without pay during the shutdown, with another 380,000 government employees on furlough. TSA employees tell MONEY that working without pay has demonstrably lowered morale and forced workers to change holiday plans, cut back on gifts for the holidays, and stress about spending on essentials like gas, groceries, and childcare.
Some employees have tried driving on the side for Uber or Lyft on top of their TSA work schedule, and others are hoping their banks will allow delayed payments on car and insurance bills without added late fees. Additionally, some employees have been reportedly calling in sick to find other gigs where they can make cash to better take care of these bills, according to a CNN report.
“If we’re really talking about the good of the people, we can’t put that kind of stress on them — to protect and serve the traveling public but then not be able to take care of their families,” says Shekina Givens, a lead transportation security officer based in Atlanta who works in the Local 0554 chapter of the AFGE union.
The partial shutdown — which impacts nine federal departments and dozens of agencies and federal programs — came after the Senate did not pass a spending bill that included $5 billion in funding for a border wall that President Donald Trump wants to put along the U.S.-Mexico border, an issue that directly involves the Department of Homeland Security, which houses TSA. In the days before the partial government shutdown, Trump said he would be “proud to shut down the government for border security.”
“If it’s the wall you’re concerned about and not your federal employees, some of us live paycheck to paycheck, and the TSA is already one of the lowest paid federal agencies,” says Juan Casarez, a TSA officer of 16 years who is the president of his local union chapter in Arizona.
“Take into consideration that federal workers have families,” he adds.
Representatives from the White House and TSA did not respond immediately to a request for comment.
It’s hard for TSA employees to see an end to the shutdown, some workers tell MONEY. Today, in a meeting with Congressional leaders, the president said the shutdown could continue for “months or even years.” On Thursday, the House, under a new Democratic majority, passed a legislative package that would have reopened the government — though Trump threatened to veto the legislation because it did not include funding for the wall. Even so, those House bills would reopen the Department of Homeland Security just until early February in an effort to keep the debate over the proposed border wall alive while, at least for now, providing funding for the department.
“Even if this shutdown ends, we’re still afraid that we’re going to be left in the middle of this political turmoil,” Payes says.
Earlier this week, AFGE, the largest union of federal workers, announced it filed a lawsuit against the government over the lack of pay for “essential” employees working throughout the shutdown. While there is no law requiring these employees to receive back pay after the shutdown ends, historically, Congress and the White House has provided them with it. The Senate passed a bill before the shutdown began in December to ensure impacted federal employees would receive back pay, and the Daily Beast reports the White House plans to support back pay, too.
Regardless, TSA employees say navigating their finances while working without pay has proved a frustrating, difficult, and strenuous process — one that weakens the draw to working for the federal government.
“The federal government should be a model employer, and when you have employees coming to work and saying, ‘Hey, we don’t know when we’ll pay you,’ that doesn’t set a great standard,” Payes, the Los Angeles-based TSA officer, says.
“At the end of the day, we’re just trying to do our job,” he adds. “We’d rather not have any distraction put into place.”
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