Racheal Abraham has worked as a TSA agent for over 16 years. It’s a good job — she likes interacting with the hundreds of travelers that pass her post every day, and she makes enough to live comfortably.
Until the shutdown started. Now, Abraham, who works as the president of the TSA union at Reagan National Airport, says while she’s still able to pay her bills, many of her colleagues are taking on extra work just to be able to afford gas money.
“Nationwide, I’m getting reports that a lot of people are taking second jobs or having to call out for a couple of days in order to make enough money to make it for a couple more days at work,” she told VICE News in an interview.
Since the government shutdown began in December, hundreds of thousands of “essential” government workers — typically those dealing with issues of national security and safety — have been working without pay. Some agencies have been reporting abnormally high numbers of unscheduled absences, as workers call out sick to take on side jobs to make enough money to pay their bills and buy food for their families.
On Friday, the same day federal workers missed their second paycheck, the Federal Aviation Administration halted flights at New York’s LaGuardia airport due to what the FAA described as “a slight increase in sick leave” at the air control facility there. The FAA also said staffing issues at Tampa International Airport had caused flight delays.
The development came in stark contrast to Trump Administration efforts Thursday to downplay the impact of the shutdown.
As “soon as this thing goes, the switch will be turned on, the payments will be made, we’ll go back to normal, this is just a glitch,” White House Economic Advisor Larry Kudlow told reporters.
The ground stop emphasized what officials have been warning for weeks: That the shutdown is having real impacts on the nation’s economy, and potentially making Americans less safe. But it also underscored the power federal workers have to drive home that impact to average Americans and lawmakers on Capitol Hill, who have been deadlocked in negotiations to open up the government.
Still, “essential” federal workers are barred from organizing a broader protest — anything resembling a mass strike, a move that could truly grind travel and other aspects of American life to a halt. Federal law prohibits workers from striking, out of concerns for Americans’ safety. The last time federal workers went on strike, when nearly 13,000 air-traffic controllers walked off the job for better pay and working conditions in 1981, then-President Ronald Reagan fired 11,000 of them.
Abraham said none of her coworkers want to strike — they want to get paid. But she added if striking weren’t illegal, she’d do it “in a heartbeat.”
“When things stop, people listen. Right now. Nobody's listening to us. So no negotiations are happening. If [workers] could speak and they could strike, everybody would listen,” she said.
This segment originally aired January 24, 2019, on VICE News Tonight on HBO.