Federal workers share struggles of payless payday with lawmakers

Sarah Rahal
The Detroit News
"We have over 820,000 workers who are not getting paid or working without pay since Dec. 22 and today, is payless payday," Rep. Andy Levin said.

Romulus — Michigan's congressional Democrats convened a sit-down Friday with federal workers facing wage losses in the midst of what threatens to be the longest government shutdown in the nation's history. 

U.S. Rep. Andy Levin, D-Bloomfield Township, joined Reps. Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn, Elissa Slotkin, D-Holly, for intimate conversation with federal employees at the Detroit Metropolitan Airport. U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Detroit, arrived later and spoke briefly with reporters. 

The lawmakers heard personal stories from Transportation Security Administration agents, members of the American Federation of Government Employees and National Treasury Employees Union as well as alarming environmental concerns from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and United States Environmental Protection Agency workers.

"We have over 820,000 workers who are not getting paid or working without pay since Dec. 22 and today, is payless payday," Levin said.

There are more than 5,200 federal workers who are furloughed or working without pay in Michigan. 

Nationwide, 420,000 federal employees are working without pay and more than 400,000 federal workers have been furloughed, Levin said. 

President Donald Trump has been at odds with Democrats over his $5.7 billion plan for a border wall and security funding. 

Trump campaigned on the border wall as a means of combating illegal immigration, human trafficking and drug activity. The president has called the move "common sense" and threatened to declare a national emergency in an attempt to bypass congressional approval in the case that he can't reach a deal with Democrats. 

Democrats oppose Trump's proposed wall or steel barrier, with some officials calling it ineffective or immoral. 

"There's no real emergency on the border," Levin said Friday. "Just because someone says 'I want this' doesn't mean we are going to do it."

Many federal workers are grappling with financial uncertainty as the shutdown drags into its third week. Morale at the airport, they noted Friday, has been lower than ever.

"I took my family to a food bank the other day to make my money last longer and am holding out until the shutdown ends," said Wanavia Wilson, lead TSA officer at Detroit Metro. "Morale is extremely low, lower than I've ever seen, and people are quitting. We had four quit yesterday and two quit last week."

Dingell, during the session, said the Senate voted 98-2 prior to Christmas to fund the government and extend homeland security to February. On Jan. 3, in an identical vote, "the president wouldn't sign it," she said.

There are more than 5,200 federal workers who are furloughed or working without pay in Michigan.

Gregory Simpkins is a TSA officer at Detroit Metro and president of the American Federation of Government Employees for Local 778 union, which represents 17 airports. He said the shutdown is threatening safety, since agents are not as focused on their work. 

"It's hard to be laser focus when we're worried about how we're going to pay our bills, childcare, rent needs to be paid and it's hard," he said. 

Dave Fanslow, President of AFGE Local 3908 representing NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Lab in Ann Arbor, said workers are feeling personal impacts of the shutdown but are more worried about the environmental effects. 

Fanslow's lab monitors the water circulation in the Straits of Mackinac and stands ready in the event of an  emergency response for Enbridge's controversial Line 5 oil pipeline. The supercomputer they use to monitor Line 5 has been shut down since Dec. 22, he said. 

The shutdown is also adversely affecting winter weather forecasts that the shipping industry relies on and that data will not be recovered when the government reopens.


"A leak in Line 5 would be catastrophic either way, but we can trace where the oil is moving and where it surfaces with the model working, but without it working is impossible," said Fanslow, who has worked for NOAA for 26 years.

NOAA is also not accepting, calculating or forecasting ice data, which the shipping industry relies on, he said.

"We can't project what the ice is going to be in February and March if we're not collecting data, temperatures and meteorology right now," Fanslow said. "When the computer is turned back on, that information is going to be lost forever because it wasn't tracked."

Jennifer Dziendziel and her husband have both worked at the airport for more than 10 years and said there isn’t a paycheck coming into their household or to provide for their son. 

“I have prescriptions that are not going to get filled,” said Dziendziel of Southgate. " A coworker told me she was forced to choose between gas to get to work and buying her insulin. These are situations that none of us should be in.”

Twitter: @SarahRahal_