‘I just want to do my job’: federal workers reveal pressure of living without pay | US news

Nick Daniels.

Nick Daniels. Photograph: Nick Daniels

Nick Daniels, air traffic controller

Coordinating the takeoff and landing of hundreds of planes each day is a “team sport” with many members working 10 hours a day, six days a week, said Nick Daniels, a specialist at Dallas/Fort Worth international airport. “It takes all of us doing our jobs perfectly 100% of the time. There’s no room for error.”

The shutdown has only increased the pressure. All air traffic controllers are deemed “essential” workers, meaning they have no paid sick or vacation days during the shutdown and all paid leave, even if scheduled in advance, has been cancelled.

Daniels, union representative for his local chapter of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, said he had saved up his leave to spend time with his 11-year-old son. But because of the shutdown, he had to come into work while his son was on winter break. Other controllers had to make tough decisions, some choosing whether to spend time with newborn children and risk losing pay.

“Just the conversations and stress that it’s putting on my family as well as the stress that I deal with at work,” Daniels said, “you compile that and really, its immeasurable what impact it is having on all air traffic controllers.”

Jessica Kostrab.

Jessica Kostrab. Photograph: Jessica Kostrab

Jessica Kostrab, national park worker

In 2017, Jessica Kostrab moved to Ashford, a small town on the steps of Mount Rainier in Washington state. She got a job taking reservations for a contract company that helps run food services in one of the national park’s hotels.

“This is the best decision I’ve made was to come out here,” Kostrab said. “I have never been happier – besides current circumstances.”

Mount Rainier national park is closed for the duration of the shutdown, like dozens of other parks and historic sites maintained by the federal government. Towns like Ashford are almost completely made up of people, like Kostrab, who work for the park in some way. The town runs on the paychecks of such workers, which means it too is coming to a halt.

“Some businesses are still open,” Kostrab said. “The gas station, the general store. A couple of the bars … but everything else is shut down.”

Like many in the town, Kostrab has been furloughed indefinitely. Her boyfriend and his mom and sister, who work for the same company, have also been out of work since the shutdown began.

“I can’t pay my rent,” Kostrab said. “I’m going to have trouble paying my car payment … I don’t know when I’m going to be able to buy groceries next. People don’t seem to care that it doesn’t just affect the federal government or its employees. It affects everyone in the communities around those parks.”

Bella Berrellez.

Bella Berrellez. Photograph: Jessica Berrellez

Bella Berrellez, daughter of furloughed worker

Like any other 11-year-old, Bella Berrellez of North Potomac, Maryland would typically have spent her winter break coloring, listening to music, watching movies or playing with her little sister. This year, however, she started a business. After learning that her mother, who works at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), would be furloughed, Bella decided to help.

“I knew my mom wasn’t going to be working and she wouldn’t get paid,” Bella said. “I was thinking of how I could help my family.”

She came up with the idea for Bella’s Sweet Scrubs, a line of bath scrubs made and packaged herself. The scrubs are made of organic sugar and essential oils and come in scents like eucalyptus, lavender and coconut.

Bella said she spends two hours a night working on her business, after she finishes her homework and has a snack. Sometimes her nana, little sister and friends help with the packaging and labeling.

More than 300 scrubs have been sold, mostly online through her Etsy shop. Her family is doing all right financially during the shutdown, so she is donating a portion of her proceeds to a local food bank. She hopes to continue the business once the shutdown ends. Until then, she hopes her mom will be able to go back to work.

“Government has a big role,” Berrellez said. “I would like it if [Congress and Donald Trump] could send them back to work.”

Shaneece Hill.

Shaneece Hill. Photograph: Shaneece Hill

Shaneece Hill, contract worker

A typical day of work starts with an hour and 15-minute drive from her home in Jefferson, Maryland to the FDA headquarters in Silver Spring. For Shaneece Hill, the commute is worth it, especially since she drives with her husband Joshua.

“Me and my husband drive together everyday, we take lunch breaks together every day,” Hill said. “We save money by commuting together and when I work from home, he works from home.”

Both are contract workers with the FDA. The shutdown therefore “hits us harder because both of us are affected”.

Contract workers are not guaranteed back pay, an unfair reality for those who may work more than counterparts employed directly by the federal government, Hill said.

“We get the short of the stick a lot,” Hill said. “We’re shuffled around more [despite being] the people that do more of the work.”

Hill and Joshua have successfully filed for unemployment. They hope to get two weeks’ pay that way, which will likely be a little more than 10% of what they would usually make.

They have already gone through their small emergency saving fund and might have to go into Hill’s retirement savings if the shutdown does not end soon. Hill said they have been more fortunate than others, since they are still able to pay their mortgage and buy groceries.

“I know we’ll be all right,” she said.

Anthony Tseng.

Anthony Tseng. Photograph: Anthony Tseng

Anthony Tseng, EPA engineer

On 10 January, day 19 of the shutdown, a small group of workers from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) held a rally, in cold weather outside their office in downtown Manhattan. For Anthony Tseng, an environmental engineer, that meant a three-hour, $40 round-trip Metro North train ride from and back to his home in up the Hudson in Beacon.

EPA employees have been furloughed since 29 December, a week after most employees were affected. But the effects can already be felt. Some of Tseng’s colleagues didn’t participate in the rally because they couldn’t afford to get there, he said.

Tseng, president of his local chapter of the American Federation of Government Employees, said he understands such financial constraints. He lives check-to-check himself and is the main breadwinner for his family. Besides worrying about two daughters in college, a mortgage, car payments, utilities and food, he said he had “had to eat a lot more bologna sandwiches than I’d like to”.

Tseng was working on two projects that have been stopped by the shutdown. Once the government reopens, it will take some time to start them up again.

“The government has official procedures on how we open these projects,” Tseng said. “The time spent on that is a colossal waste on taxpayer money.”

Having worked for the EPA since 1998, Tseng said he was frustrated that federal workers were being used as a “political chip” in Washington.

“As a public servant, I’m not a politician,” Tseng said. “I just want to do my job.”

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