As the nation enters the third consecutive week of the partial government shutdown, Rhode Island’s relatively small configuration of federal employees – it has the sixth fewest total federal workers in the nation, with 6,864 as of February 2018 – are starting to feel the effects where it matters most: their bank accounts.
While many jobs considered essential to the country’s operations, like many in the Department of Defense, are not affected by the shutdown – nor are employees of the Post Office, which is actually an independent agency of the federal government – other departments have been forced to send home workers on furlough or ask their employees to work without payment until the shutdown is resolved and funding becomes available.
“When they shut you down and there's no budget, that's the whole issue – there's no funding,” said Daniel Burche, federal security director for T.F. Green Airport, who is employed by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) under the Department of Homeland Security.
Burche said that while only two of his staff – there are about 200 people employed in the Rhode Island TSA office – have been placed on furlough (one was called back after being deemed essential), there is still concern among the employees that they won’t be receiving their bi-weekly paycheck this Friday.
“I really don't know. We've hit uncharted territory. As with almost anything, if people aren't getting paid and bills are coming too, it can have nothing but a negative impact,” he said. “If you're working you will be [made whole]. That's a fact. The only real questions are if you're furloughed, are you getting paid or are you not? None of us know that.”
Other airport jobs are feeling the pressure as well. Peter Geddis, president for the local chapter of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, said that five employees deemed nonessential have been furloughed. Those aren’t air traffic controllers, mind you, but they work jobs that Geddis considers to still be quite essential.
“They're pretty important to us too,” he said, adding that they help update flight maps and air traffic computer software and assist with training. He said that two furloughed employees were in the midst of an extensive training program when the government shut down, and wasn’t sure if they’d have to start over from the beginning.
Geddis said that T.F. Green has 32 air traffic controllers who are trained in both tower operations and in radar. Although these employees are essential to air travel continuing and Geddis said none of them have called out sick, they aren’t being paid for their efforts. Their bi-weekly paychecks are also scheduled for Friday, but they’ll miss that pay period if the shutdown continues.
“They’re getting concerned. Like anybody else they have bills coming in,” he said. “Hopefully it gets fixed so we get paid. We're still showing up and still working. No one is picking a side, we'd just like to have everything back to normal.”
The concern statewide and beyond about the shutdown has become more and more palpable as the days have advanced. Congressman Jim Langevin on Wednesday sent a retort to President Donald Trump’s national address delivered on Tuesday, which doubled down on his request to receive funding for a wall along the Mexican border before the government can resume its normal operations.
“The President’s remarks do not bring us any closer to ending the shutdown, which is currently the second-longest on record and is causing increasing hardship for millions of Americans,” Langevin’s statement reads. “On the first day of the new Congress, Democrats voted to reopen the government and restore funding to the Department of Homeland Security, the very agency charged with protecting our borders. Yet, rather than pay our Border Patrol Agents while negotiations continue, the President insists on keeping the government closed.”
Senator Jack Reed also issued a statement critical of the president’s actions.
“President Trump’s policies aren’t working and have contributed to a humanitarian challenge,” the statement reads. “As long as President Trump prevents our government from functioning, it will be difficult to effectively address this situation, especially since he is forcing U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents to work without a paycheck…I urge President Trump to stop trying to shift blame and mislead Americans about the nature of the problem, and start working with Congress on real solutions.”
The shutdown has crept into other areas of Rhode Island life as well. As reported by the Providence Journal, a regional federal meeting to discuss environmental concerns surrounding a proposed 100-turbine, 800-megawatt offshore wind farm that was set to take place in Narragansett on Wednesday had to be postponed.