AURORA | Nine federal workers gathered around a conference table with Aurora Congressman Jason Crow Saturday morning to share their stories of being out of work because of the partial government shutdown.
“We had to pass out a lot of Kleenex at this meeting,” Crow said afterward.
One woman offered up spare bedrooms in her home to those who have nowhere to stay. One member at the table said they knew some TSA workers living in their car because they couldn’t make rent. Another said they had taken out an equity loan on their home just to pay bills. Other participants talked about knowing fellow federal workers having to take an odd job, drive for Uber for extra cash.
When asked whether the pain being felt by federal employees is too great, and if Democrats like himself should just allow for President Donald Trump to get billions for his border wall or compromise further, Crow said, “We have.”
Earlier this week a tip sheet posted on the National Guard’s website encouraged employees to babysit or hold a garage sale while out of work. The Washington Post reported the suggestions were later removed.
Crow’s office held special “shut down office hours” earlier in the week, gathering stories of those affected by the shutdown. All hands were on deck to take those calls, Crow said.
The shutdown began last month via an impasse among Democrats and Senate Republicans and Trump over a wall along the southern border. As of Saturday, it’s the longest shutdown the country has ever experienced. 800,000 workers are without pay, more than half deemed essential.
“When you sit down at a table and people are crying and pleading for help, it really humanizes the issue,” Crow said.
Matt Scala, a Centennial resident, hasn’t had to go as far as to drive for a ride-sharing service or sell any of his belongings. But life isn’t as comfortable as usual for the air traffic controller. He works near Denver International Airport with nearly 85 other federal employees who aren’t have received little to no payment in 22 days.
Scala, and most of the people he works with, is tasked with making sure airplanes don’t collide in the 40 miles around DIA. It’s a job he and his co-workers realize is a necessity, so there haven’t been many call-offs.
“We like to do our jobs,” he said.
Crow said the stress of the shutdown has become an important factor. “We want people focused on the aircraft and doing their job and focusing on everything is running right, not whether they can pay their mortgage at the end of the month or things that add additional stress or distraction to their lives.”
“The human factor is a big concern for everybody,” Scala added. “Not having a paycheck is a pretty big source of stress that is not going to be helpful when you sit down. You can’t just leave that at the door.”
There are some people who are new parents who haven’t been able to take paid leave, he said. That’s made it hard for some co-workers, but as far as Scala knows, nobody has lost their home.
Scala, who said he’s active in his union, said workers are trying to make the best of the situation by being there for each other. He said his co-workers have been bringing in treats, like cookies, to the office to help keep up morale.
This isn’t the first shutdown Scala said he’s experienced. When the February 2018 shutdown occurred Scala said his wife became worried and took a job as a para-educator.
“It’s not a ton of money, but it a little something that helps,” he said. Since that shutdown, Scala said he and his wife, who have two sons, have been trying to pay down bills and save more of their paychecks in case another shutdown happened.
“We’re public servants,” he said. “We’re not leeches.”
Scala had to report to a shift after the meeting.
About 10,000 air traffic controllers under the Federal Aviation Administration continue to work without pay. On Friday, their union, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, filed a lawsuit in federal court in Washington and asked for an order that its members get paid.
Union President Paul Rinaldi said there is already a shortage of controllers, and if current controllers decide to retire — about 1,900 are eligible — the government could be forced to restrict air traffic, creating flight delays.
There is no indication that is happening yet, but it’s a worry Scala has too. He noted that the air traffic controller school in Oklahoma City has closed. That puts additional pressure on an industry that could see a lot of workers exiting in the next few years.
Scala worries that this shutdown will be the final straw for those who are able to retire.
Crow, who returns to Congress on Monday, said he wants a vote.
“When I left (Washington) yesterday there was no movement,” he said. “Everyone was dug in. We’ve been taking the votes. We’ve been sending pretty consistently bills to the Senate for them to reopen it (the government) and putting pressure on them to do it. I’d like to see a vote. These are bills people voted for last year, so let’s have a vote in the Senate and see where people stand and see if their position has changed since June or July. Some of these bills have passed with 92 votes. Let’s send something to the president.”
As far as compromise, Crow said he and fellow Democrats realize they aren’t getting everything they want.
“It’s important to note we’ve already compromised a lot,” he said. “This is a compromise bill. This is not the bill that if the House of Representatives could draft from scratch we would have drafted. These are bills that passed the Republican-controlled Senate with overwhelming support last year, and this is our message that we’re willing to work with you.
“Let’s get people back to work. Let’s stop the suffering I heard about today and have a longer discussion about border security because we have legitimate long-running differences on the best way to secure our border, which everybody is interested in doing. Let’s not use our federal workforce as a bargaining too.”
— The Associated Press contributed to this report