Will Cities Pay Federal Workers During the Shutdown?

A TSA officer finishes her lunch as federal airport workers bring in donated boxes of meals from the McDonald's in the airport food court to the TSA break room, Friday, Jan. 18, 2019, at the Pittsburgh International Airport in Imperial, Pa.

A TSA officer finishes her lunch as federal airport workers bring in donated boxes of meals from the McDonald's in the airport food court to the TSA break room, Friday, Jan. 18, 2019, at the Pittsburgh International Airport in Imperial, Pa. Keith Srakocic/AP

San Jose is offering its airport workers loans during the shutdown. More cities are following.

The thirty-day mark of the government shutdown has come and gone, meaning some 420,000 federal employees have done a month’s work for free. Legally barred from striking—and driven, perhaps, by a higher sense of duty—FBI, secret service, and Transportation Security Administration agents; food inspectors; and air traffic controllers clocked hours to keep vital parts of the government running. This week, more workers previously deemed “nonessential” have been called back: IRS agents will return to work to deal with the looming tax season, and the Farm Service Agency will staff its office a few days a week to process loans.

The federal government won’t pay their salaries until President Donald Trump calls off the shutdown, something he claims will happen only after the Democrats agree to broker a $5 billion-plus deal to build a border wall. In the interim, local services have been stunted, and families are struggling. Now, in an effort to keep federal employees afloat (and to keep things running), some cities and states are weighing whether to start covering paychecks themselves.

On Wednesday night, San Jose’s city council was the first to approve a plan to offer no-interest loans to 500 federal airport workers at Norman Y. Mineta San Jose International Airport. “We know for many customs and TSA employees who are living paycheck to paycheck, the shutdown has forced them into the decision of going to work, unable to pay rent, or driving for Uber,” Mayor Sam Liccardo told CityLab. “That’s a choice no one should be subjected to.”

And, as Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport contends with the longest lines in the country—and prepares to host the Superbowl—Atlanta city council member Michael Bond also proposed giving loans to its TSA workers. Mayor Keisha Lance-Bottoms ultimately decided not to pursue the plan. Her office did not respond to requests for comment.

The heightened focus on San Jose’s airport workers, as opposed to the thousands of others affected, is a matter of public safety, says Pam Foley, a San Jose city council member who supported the plan. “We want to make sure our airports are running efficiently, effectively, and safely for all passengers,” she said. It’s also a shrewd economic move, says Will Wilkinson, vice president for research at the Niskanen Center, a Washington think tank: “Cities really depend on movement of people,” he said. “San Jose is in the middle of Silicon Valley, and … there’s a lot of business that needs to get done.” To do it, they need to fly. In Liccardo’s policy memo, he alluded to this, too: “We must do so to … protect our regional economy.”

The TSA absence rates at Norman Y. Mineta have reached 14 percent from the typical 3 percent; nationally, the TSA reported an absentee rate of 6.1 percent on Wednesday, elevated from an average of 5 percent. On Wednesday, TSA leaders told the Washington Post that “many employees are reporting that they are not able to report to work due to financial limitations.”

But other compensation programs for federal workers, regardless of position, have been announced, too. From Sacramento’s airport Thursday, California Governor Gavin Newsom announced that he would offer unemployment insurance “to those hurt by the shutdown” across the state, though the Department of Labor says federal workers are technically ineligible for the benefit; and other Democratic governors from Washington, Michigan, and New York called on the Labor Department to issue clearer guidelines as to whether they could, too. Connecticut governor Ned Lamont is partnering with Webster Bank to offer interest-free loans to the 1,500 to 2,500 federal workers in Connecticut, “including air traffic controllers and certain Environmental Protection Agency staff,” the Connecticut Mirror reported.

House Democrats have also introduced legislation that would give out short-term loans to any federal employee, offering $6,000 interest-free from the Treasury Department. But through Congress, the path to passage could be long.

While federal workers have been promised back pay, even one lost paycheck could put families behind on mortgages, or hospital bills, or loan payments, or child care costs. “We’re trying to make this as easy on them as possible,” said a spokesperson for Foley. “Once you miss a paycheck, it’s a pretty steep climb to get back to where you’re level again.”

San Jose’s coverage plan takes the form of a short-term loan program because cities cannot directly pay federal workers to do federal work. The estimated $2.5 million program will be paid for out of the airport’s $50 million reserve fund, and will last up to three months. A more detailed plan will be solidified in the coming days, but Foley’s office said workers would be able to apply for loans up to the amount they typically make in wages. And when (and if) employees are given their retroactive paychecks from the federal government, they’ll be able to pay the airport back.

While Atlanta’s plan to pay their TSA agents is not moving forward, the city is strategizing on how to help all federal workers save in other ways, like suspending their water bills. “We certainly wouldn’t want to find ourselves disconnecting service to a federal employee,” Atlanta city council president Felicia Moore said. This strategy is being mirrored across the country: After Clovis, California, announced it would be offering interest-free loans to cover federal workers’ utility bills, the neighboring city of Fresno reminded federal workers that they, too, were eligible for full utility coverage under an existing plan for residents experiencing hardship. Jacksonville, Florida’s city hall is offering $500,000 in small grants to federal workers, though only four families have yet received them.

The path to getting all federal workers more consistent paychecks, though, rests in Washington. “We thank San Jose for stepping up to the plate, but unfortunately for the tens of thousands of TSA officers outside of San Jose, this issue will not be going away anytime soon,” the president of the American Federation of Government Employees, David Cox, told the Mercury News. “Our members live paycheck to paycheck and this partial government shutdown is crushing them financially.”

There’s significant disagreement about what, if anything, would actually facilitate a shutdown deal. But airports have been identified as one pressure point: Because they’re so crucial to economies and individuals, those who staff them may be uniquely positioned to leverage the federal government to end the shutdown, some lawmakers have observed. If more TSA sick-outs are staged, or if screeners were to plan a walk-out on a mass scale, the impact on airports could inspire mass revolt.

But Wilkinson says it’s not on cities to precipitate chaos in the hopes that the federal government takes action. “The argument that airports need to become a huge clusterfuck before the shutdown ends is kind of silly,” he said. “There’s a billion better ways to get the shutdown to end.”

And, says California Labor Federation spokesperson Steve Smith, though the political pressure of a total airport walkout “would be enormous … with a president who is so unpredictable, that’s a huge risk.” Agents are not only worried about getting paychecks in the short-term, but about their long-term job security.

Still, Wilkinson says that compensating workers, while arguably both humane and in cities’ immediate interests, is not the best political tactic for reopening the government. “Basically, all the stuff that really critically matters happens anyway,” he said. “And that insulates people from the pain which takes away the political pressure to come to a solution.” Sam Berger, a senior advisor at the Center For American Progress, observed this dynamic during the 2013 government shutdown, too. “During the 2013 shutdown, our biggest concern was making sure people didn’t show up to work.” And that wasn’t easy: “These are mission-driven people, and we’re asking them to abandon their mission.” With the promise of backpay, and, indeed, the promise of interim pay, the thinking goes, workers have less of an incentive to take bold action.

That convoluted reasoning could be part of the reason more cities aren’t following San Jose’s lead yet, says Wilkinson. Others may fear setting a dangerous precedent, creating the expectation that local governments will, and can, do the federal government’s job if forced to. Not all of them have an airport with a $50 million fund lying around—and many have already been stretched thin, attempting to cover other shutdown-related costs.

Or, cities are just making yet another political calculation: That the act of offering workers money is an aggressive political statement. “Clearly Trump is at war with liberal cities in some sense, and their ability to assert their autonomy and what sovereignty they have is a way of standing up for themselves,” said Wilkinson. San Jose’s Liccardo might benefit from taking such a bold stance. Atlanta, however, might have been more wary of doing so, as a liberal city in a Republican state.

For workers going hungry now, though, political strategy is far from relevant. “I think it’s important for everybody to remember these are real people with real families,” said Smith. “We need to provide whatever support we can to these workers who have the burden of this incredible hardship for no other reason that political expediency of the president and the Republican Senate.”

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