Smith pledges to fight for federal workers as shutdown hits home

TSA agent Celia Hahn speaks at a press conference inside MSP Airport with Sen. Tina Smith.

The political staredown in Washington is maddening. Its human toll grows more heartbreaking each day.

U.S. Sen. Tina Smith stood at a podium in Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport today holding a letter from Joseph, an air traffic controller from Lakeville. He sent the senator a photo of his newborn son, born 10 weeks early on the 10th day of the federal government shutdown.

Joseph told Smith there is just one Twin Cities hospital that provides care to babies born so early, and it’s not in his current insurance network. Because the government is shut down, Joseph can’t switch plans. He can’t apply for paid family leave, either.

“I take solace in what matters most,” Joseph wrote. “Oliver is getting a little stronger and a little closer to home every day.”

The government appears no closer to reopening, however.

Today 800,000 federal employees missed their first paycheck since the shutdown began. President Trump marked the occasion by holding firm to his position – one he has said he’s willing to maintain for months – that the government won’t reopen unless he gets $5 billion in funding for a wall along the nation’s border with Mexico.

Smith, who met with impacted federal workers at the airport today, called on Senate Republicans to stand up to Trump and put people before the president’s political stunts.

The Republican-controlled Senate unanimously passed a short-term funding package last month to keep the government open. But Trump refused to sign it, opting instead to leverage a government shutdown for his unpopular wall.

“We should not be using the people standing behind me as bargaining chips,” Smith says.

Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell knows a veto-proof majority of senators supported keeping the government open without funding for the wall, but so far he has refused to stand up to Trump.

“All that has to happen is for Mitch McConnell to bring those bills forward,” Smith said. “This shutdown could end as soon as tomorrow if we could come together and appreciate that we should not be using the people standing behind me as bargaining chips.”

The people behind Smith were a handful of the estimated 5,470 federal employees in Minnesota either furloughed or working without pay during the shutdown.

Some are tightening their belts, tapping their savings or taking out loans to cover daily costs until they get paid again. Workers at the federal prison in Rochester have opened a food bank to support each other during the shutdown, corrections officer William Axford said.

“The things that would normally be inconveniences, like car repairs or maintenance, become back-breakers,” Axford, an officer in American Federation of Government Employees Local 3947, added.

Other federal workers are looking for new jobs. Celia Hahn, a TSA agent with 16 years of experience at MSP Airport, said her agency already faces a shortage of workers. In fact, management has announced plans to hold a hiring fair later this month.

Letter and photo received by Smith from a Lakeville air traffic controller hit hard by the shutdown.

Working long hours, short-staffed, for no pay takes a toll on workplace morale – and public safety, Hahn added.

“It’s definitely not going to make travel more secure the long this goes on,”the president of AFGE Local 899 said. “And that’s not because of people not doing their jobs. It’s because of people just not being here.”

TSA agents and corrections officers are on the low end of the federal pay scales. Hahn said TSA agents’ wages start at around $17 per hour. Sandstone prison guard Mike Weber said new hires make less than $20 in his shop.

Smith has signed onto a bill that would make sure another group of low-paid workers impacted by the shutdown – contractor employees – are made whole with back pay when the impasse ends, something that has not generally happened, according to the senator.

President Trump has said he can “relate” to federal workers and contractor employees going without pay, suggesting they are able to “make adjustments.”

But those adjustments come at a price for many, including Weber and his wife, who also works at the central-Minnesota correctional facility. Weber, president of AFGE Local 683, said they are one of nine couples on the payroll.

“Savings don’t last very long when neither one of us is getting an income,” he said. “We can’t tell our 4-year-old we can’t afford mac-and-cheese; we’ve got to keep putting gas in our car to go to work. So I think we’re going to have to look at taking out loans, and that costs anywhere from 5 to 10 percent interest.

“I think we’re going to have to start planning for the next shutdown when this one ends. That’s pretty sad.”

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  1. […] at federal prisons in Minnesota, members of the American Federation of Government Employees. They missed their first paychecks last Friday, and it appears likely they will miss another next […]

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