Coast Guard could miss next paycheck if shutdown continues

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News
Coast Guard ice breaker on the St. Mary's River

Washington — U.S. Coast Guard workers who could soon miss their next paycheck started ice-breaking operations in the Great Lakes on Monday in response to the spread of ice in the commercial ports of the St. Mary’s River and western Lake Superior.

Coast Guard staff are among an estimated 6,000 federal employees in Michigan going without pay or furloughed as a result of the partial shutdown affecting roughly a fourth of the federal government. Michigan had nearly 53,000 federal employees, including Postal Service workers, as of June 2017, according to Governing magazine

The Michigan employees work for one of nine departments whose funding expired Dec. 21, including the Department of Homeland Security that houses the Coast Guard. 

Negotiations continued over the weekend, but lawmakers seemed no closer to ending the budget impasse Monday — Day 17 of the shutdown — then when appropriations lapsed over two weeks ago.

Central to the fight is President Donald Trump's demand for $5.7 billion for a Southern border wall that congressional Democrats have balked at.

If the shutdown drags on much longer, its impacts could become even more painful, affecting food stamps, housing aid and even tax refunds. 

It's the third shutdown under Trump, who told reporters at the White House on Sunday that he "can relate" to federal workers who can't pay their bills. 

"And I'm sure that the people that are on the receiving end will make adjustment. They always do," Trump said.

"People understand exactly what's going on. But many of those people that won't be receiving a paycheck, many of those people agree 100 percent with what I'm doing."

Sen. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township, visited the Saginaw River Coast Guard station Monday afternoon and lamented that those he met there were working unpaid. 

"There's no reason for that. This shutdown needs to end," Peters tweeted.

An estimated 42,000 Coast Guard employees across the country are continuing to work despite uncertainty that they will get their next paycheck Jan. 15.

Pay for the other uniformed services has not been affected by the shutdown because they fall under the Department of Defense, whose budget is funded through Sept. 30.

In the Great Lakes region, the Coast Guard employs about 2,600, of which 2,000 are active-duty staff, 125 are civilians and about 460 reserves, said Chief Petty Officer Bobby Nash, a spokesman for the Coast Guard's 9th District out of Cleveland. 

"The active-duty component are still expected to come into work. Some of the government civilians have been furloughed, and others are exempted and will be working without pay," Nash said. 

Senators last week introduced a bill to keep paying Coast Guard personnel despite the shutdown — a move cheered by groups representing Coast Guard officers and enlisted members. Lawmakers could vote on the measure as soon as this week.

Casey Lawrence, national president of the Coast Guard Enlisted Association, represents 2,500 members junior enlisted personnel with so little tenure in the service that they don't have the savings to sustain the lapse of even one paycheck.

"I think the general thought was that this would be taken care of — you know, we'll be included with the Department of Defense funding, but unfortunately, that's not the case," said Lawrence, who is based in Kodiak, Alaska. 

Members, she added, are feeling "forgotten" and struggling to navigate an uncertain situation. 

"We can send letters to mortgage companies and creditors, but where my members are getting hung up is the personal debt they have to landlords, who are responsible for mortgages,” Lawrence said.

"They're on the hook for these costs, and it's just so important that they're taken care of."   

Lawrence noted that some Coast Guard employees may qualify for aid from the Coast Guard Mutual Assistance, a nonprofit group. Several military credit unions also have opened up zero- or low-interest loans to Coast Guard members, she said. 

Coast Guard Sector Sault Ste. Marie on Monday said it had launched Operation Taconite, the service’s largest domestic ice-breaking operation, which covers Lakes Michigan and Superior and northern Lake Huron, as well as St. Marys River, the Straits of Mackinac, Georgian Bay and Green Bay.

"They’re going through and ensuring that the navigable waterways that are relied upon are open and free to navigate until such time that they become closed for the season," Nash said.

"That is why the operations are so important to deliver things like fuel oil to ensure that homes have heat to keep them warm during the winter."