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'Federal Employees Deserve Better': Workers Rally As Shutdown Frustration Builds

Jan 11, 2019

As federal workers miss their first paychecks since the partial government shutdown began three weeks ago, frustration, anxiety and anger are rising.

Across the country this week, federal workers and industry leaders are starting to organize and rally to demand an end to the partial government shutdown.

"Trump, open the government — today," chanted the hundreds of federal employees and aviation industry executives gathered on the Capitol lawn in Washington, D.C., Thursday.

Rallies also took place Thursday in Dallas, Covington, Ky., Cincinnati, Minneapolis, Chicago and St. Louis. More rallies are happening Friday and this weekend in Columbus, Ohio, Boston and, for the second day in a row, in the nation's capital.

The shutdown is affecting some 800,000 employees. An estimated 420,000 are working without pay and about 380,000 are on furlough and staying home, also without pay, according to Senate Appropriations Committee.

The crowd roared and cheered holding signs that read "We Want to Work" and "Congress Do Your Job So We Can Do Ours." Many showed up with their children despite the blustery weather.

One furloughed rally attendee had a baby strapped to her back, with a sign that read "Let My Mommy Work" taped to the carrier.

David Baker, 35, was among those chanting loudly. He's an air traffic controller in Norfolk, Va., and came to the rally to tell Congress and the White House to end the shutdown.

"It's extremely disappointing to know that our leaders can't get something done," he said.

Baker and his wife have two boys — ages eight and three. He says every day that goes by, his family feels a heavy financial burden as bills roll in.

"It's unacceptable," he says. "We've spent the last week calling our mortgage company, our car loan company, calling credit cards and our day care provider saying 'we don't know if we are going to make this month's payment." It's hard, he adds, to prioritize whether to go to the grocery store or pay your mortgage. He takes a deep breath and adds, "federal employees deserve better."

Baker is one of many employees worried about the financial impact of the shutdown. Christina Lewis, a single mother who works as an air traffic controller, said she just had her cell phone shut off. Other workers said they're tapping into savings to pay their mortgage and recurring bills.

This shutdown may become the longest one in U.S. history.

Sara Nelson, international president for the Association of Flight Attendants, represents 50,000 employees. She's concerned about flight attendants' security, safety and their economic stability.

When the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Aviation Administration are not operating at full capacity, she says, "we are less safe and we are less secure. Safety and security is not negotiable."

You cannot expect a workforce to come to work and do their job when they have to be concerned about the safety and security of their own families. - Sara Nelson

Nelson believes the push for border security, which has stalled congressional negotiations, is important. But, she adds, "you cannot expect a workforce to come to work and do their job when they have to be concerned about the safety and security of their own families."

Mike Perrone, president of Professional Aviation Safety Specialists, also feels that if the shutdown persists air safety will eventually become compromised. He represents aviation safety inspectors, flight inspection pilots and others working to keep the system safe and running. He said with inspectors not working, a layer of safety is missing. "They are not inspecting airplanes, they are not inspecting the pilots."

Perrone said the system is not unsafe right now, but worries about what will happen as time goes on.

At the Washington, D.C., rally, Pete Bunce, the president of the General Aviation Manufacturing Association says workers stand to lose even more as time goes on.

"As the shutdown continues, it is having tremendous impact that it will ultimately result in our having to lay off employees," he says.

Bunce said that to be able to build and deliver aircraft, his industry needs FAA inspectors to be able to get the safety oversight approvals that make the U.S. aviation system safe. "That's not happening right now," he said. "If the shutdown continues, it is going to have impact in the billions of dollars to our industry."

Hafsa Quraishi is an intern on NPR's National Desk.

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