Arizona federal employees grapple with shutdown’s effects

By: - January 8, 2019 1:17 pm

Photos via the United States Geological Survey, United States Department of Labor and the Department of Homeland Security.

The government shutdown continues to dominate Washington, D.C., and is nearing a milestone set previously during the Clinton administration over a fight with the GOP led house over medicare for longest shutdown in U.S. history and Arizona federal workers are starting to feel the pressure.

“The bills are coming in, and I have no way to pay for them,” said Kristen Randall, a hydrologic technician with the United States Geological Survey in Tucson.

Both Randall and her husband are geologists with USGS and are currently furloughed. They are trying to balance managing their budget, along with taking care of their 3-year-old son.

There are more than 58,000 federal workers in Arizona, according to data from the Arizona Office of Economic Opportunity. In the first 11 months of 2018, more than 4,000 federal employees were hired in Arizona.

Juan Casarez, a transportation security officer at Sky Harbor Airport and president of the local TSA union said he and his fellow employees are tightening their purse strings as well.

“Honestly, I don’t know, to tell you the truth,” he said when asked what he will do if the shutdown continues for much longer.

Casarez’s son is a TSA employee, as well, who relies on the job as his sole source of income.

Local federal employee unions, like the Arizona chapter of the American Federation of Government Employees, are currently helping their members navigate things like unemployment and food assistance programs.

Many of the chapter’s members work paycheck to paycheck. Pay for jobs like TSA agent can range from $29,000 to $44,000 annually.  

“These people are not elite Washington, D.C., folks, these are your neighbors,” said Jacob Goehl, secretary for the Arizona chapter of AFGE and an employee of the U.S. Department of Labor.

Additional distractions

Goehl, an Army veteran, said he is lucky that his position has not been furloughed, because the Department of Labor has a two-year appropriation that includes 2019. That means it’s “business as usual” for the agency, he said. But many of the local union members are not so lucky, Goehl said.

Goehl has been making calls and writing emails in his free time to Arizona Sens. Kyrsten Sinema and Martha McSally, urging them to try and fix the issue. So far, he said he hasn’t heard back.

Goehl said public safety could be at risk, since agents for Customs and Border Protection and TSA are currently working without pay, and with no guarantee they’ll receive back-pay when the shutdown ends.

“If CBP and TSA are not getting paid, they’re distracted,” Goehl said. “If CBP or TSA are not on their A-game, it can create a dangerous situation.”

That lack of pay has already had an effect: CNN reported a recent spike at busy airports in TSA agents calling out sick.

TSA workers like Casarez hope that is due to it being flu season. He said he has been advising his fellow agents not to call in, sick and believes the workers in Phoenix wouldn’t be ones to do that and he has not seen a large increase in call outs in Phoenix yet.

It’s not just the agents you see at the airport feeling the hurt at the TSA. Administrative workers, like those in human resources and accounting, have been furloughed.

CBP and TSA are not the only federal jobs that can create dangerous issues with distracted or missing employees.

“[I] mainly work on lower Colorado River issues which, you know, are kinda important,” said Randall, the USGS geologist. Her job also includes monitoring groundwater levels and maintaining flood-warning gauges.

Randall worries that, if the shutdown continues for too long, there could be damage to people’s land, property or lives if things like flood-warning gauges fall into disrepair.

National parks in Arizona are starting to feel the hurt, as well.

While the Grand Canyon is able to stay operational due to a contingency fund put in place by Gov. Doug Ducey, other national parks in the state could start facing issues. One park in Arizona has already seen an incident that could be related to the shutdown after the body of a 14-year-old girl was found in Horseshoe Bend.

Her death is one of three that have occurred at National Parks since the shutdown began.

Fear of speaking out

The shutdown and the divisive political atmosphere that has led to it has also put federal workers in a tough situation.

President Donald Trump has said that federal workers support the shutdown and even held an unorthodox press conference with Border Patrol agents who said they support it as well.

“Absolutely nobody wants to go without a paycheck,” Goehl said.

He stopped short of saying if he did or did not support the wall.

Some federal workers, like Casarez, are more open to speaking their mind on the issue.

“Find another way for your wall and think about your people,” Casarez said when asked what he would say to Trump if he could.

“A very small percentage may agree (with the shutdown),” Casarez said, but “the vast majority definitely do not agree that the shutdown should have taken place over a wall.”

Meanwhile, workers like Randall said they would rather not share their political opinion about the issue other than it has been painful to watch the process.

“A lot of federal employees are scared to speak up,” Ryan Mims, the legislative organizer for the AFGE in Arizona, said.

The fear they have is over a piece of legislation that originally was intended to protect political speech by federal employees, the Hatch Act.

The purpose of the Hatch Act was to protect federal employees at a time when politicians were offering employment opportunities for political support. The Hatch Act prohibits federal government employees from engaging in certain kinds of political activity or making political statements, and prohibits the use of government resources for political campaigns.

A violation of the Hatch Act can result in fines and even jail time.

It’s also mostly up to the executive branch to decide which Hatch Act violations to prosecute, leaving some federal workers fearful of speaking on certain political matters, Mims said.

A different kind of shutdown

Randall, Casarez and Goehl have all been through shutdowns before this one, but all said the current one feels different to them.

All three went through the 2013 shutdown that lasted 16 days. It furloughed more than 800,000 federal employees and saw another 1.3 million work without pay.

In 2013, Randall felt less tense as the rhetoric on both sides seemed to favor a resolution and no one was threatening that it could go on for “years”.

“I can’t say that with any confidence this time,” Randall said, adding that she’s applied for unemployment at the urging of her superiors.

She posted on Facebook about applying for unemployment benefits for the first time in her life. A few days later, Trump told legislative leaders that he would keep the government shut down for “months or years” if that’s what it takes to secure funding for a border wall.

After that statement, Randall said she got a flood of messages from fellow federal employees asking how they could apply for unemployment benefits.

Now, she is even looking at possibly getting out of federal work, as she sees the shutdown as a sign that this sort of gridlock could begin to occur more frequently.

Goehl has noticed a change, too. He said the political posturing seems different and unlike in other shutdowns, and a resolution doesn’t seem imminent.

This is Casarez’s third shutdown, and fellow colleagues who have stuck it out in the past are less hopeful than in the past, as they’re all anticipating a longer, nastier shutdown due to the rhetoric coming out of D.C.

He said he is weighing his options and is looking at possibly tapping into his retirement to make ends meet, if need be.

The timing of this shutdown wasn’t helpful, either.

“It kinda crept up on us,” Randall said.

That was in part due to everyone being on holiday break when the shutdown began.

Additionally, there is fear that workers won’t be made whole again once a resolution is reached in D.C.

“We don’t know if that is going to happen this time,” Mims said, adding that the AFGE currently is working its way through the courts to try and ensure federal workers get back-pay.

But, as Mims noted, the lawsuit is in a state of limbo since the U.S. Department of Justice is partially closed as well.

“There’s a human aspect of employees not getting paid and it’s only going to get worse,” Randall said.

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Jerod MacDonald-Evoy
Jerod MacDonald-Evoy

Reporter Jerod MacDonald-Evoy joins the Arizona Mirror from the Arizona Republic, where he spent 4 years covering everything from dark money in politics to Catholic priest sexual abuse scandals. Jerod has also won awards for his documentary films which have covered issues such as religious tolerance and surveillance technology used by police. He brings strong watchdog sensibilities and creative storytelling skills to the Arizona Mirror.