Congress goes on vacation, furloughed FAA workers go to unemployment

Fred Rasche begrudgingly applied for unemployment benefits for the first time in his life this week.

No, Rasche isn't officially among the ranks of the 14 million jobless in America seeking employment. Instead, the 49-year-old electrical engineer finds himself in the crosshairs of what seems to him a nonsensical political squabble in Washington-albeit one that's wreaking havoc on his personal finances.

Rasche, an employee of the Federal Aviation Administration for the last 27 years, is one of 4,000 workers who've been furloughed because of the congressional impasse over funding.

While lawmakers have fled the nation's capital for a month-long recess leaving the mess unresolved, Rasche and other furloughed workers are busy reworking family budgets.

"From my perspective, we had no warning," he said. "We were caught flat-footed."

Congress has signed off on 20 stopgap funding extensions since 2007, and FAA workers and contractors had no reason to believe that another wouldn't be granted until the details of a long-term bill could be ironed out.

No such luck in this summer of soaring tempers and dug-in heels. Rasche and thousands of employees have been out of work for two weeks-July 22 was their last day.

Rasche cashed in a life insurance policy and has been scaling back on other purchases. His wife, thankfully, has a job and is preparing to look for another. He figures he has enough money to pay his mortgage for August and possibly September. After that, things start looking a little more dicey. If all else fails, he'll dip into the college funds of two of his children, ages 14 and 17.

"We work very hard doing our jobs and we like our jobs and now we're being furloughed during this time when everybody is talking about jobs," Rasche said. "It's just doesn't make sense to us. People are worried about how they're going to pay their bills."

The sentiment is all too common among FAA employees who find themselves at the whim of a petulant Congress. The worst of it may be the feeling of tied hands and maddening uncertainty, employees said.

"It's causing horrible anxiety," said Mark DePlasco, a controller who manages air traffic facilities in California.

A member of the FAA Manager's Association, DePlasco, 52, counts himself lucky that he has enough savings to get him through the next few weeks. He's heard from other members of the organization who are less fortunate -- the only income-earners in their family who have elderly parents as well as children to care for.

"We don't know when this will end. It could end Friday, it could end September when they get back, it could end October I guess…. It'll bankrupt me and it'll bankrupt everyone else," DePlasco said.

"We hear soundbites from Washington about jobs, jobs, jobs and the reality is they're telling us to go to the unemployment lines," said Michael Weatherby, 43, who works in information security for the William J. Hughes Technical Center outside Atlantic City, N.J., the largest aviation-research facility in the world.

"We can't do anything about it and my managers can't do anything about it and then to watch the government just go on vacation and leave us here without paychecks -- it's insanity."

While Rasche, DePlasco and Weatherby had nothing but praise for the way Transportation Secretary Ray Lahood and FAA administrator Randy Babbitt have gone to bat for their employees -- imploring Congress to come back and pass an extension -- the employees didn't have such warm words for the rest of the Washington establishment.

"Government doesn't seem like it's working anymore," Rasche said. "Things are broken."

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