FAA employee Michael Jessie, who is currently working without pay as an aviation safety inspector for New York international field office overseeing foreign air carriers, holds a sign at Newark Liberty International Airport Jan. 8.

FAA employee Michael Jessie, who is currently working without pay as an aviation safety inspector for New York international field office overseeing foreign air carriers, holds a sign at Newark Liberty International Airport Jan. 8. Julio Cortez/AP

‘Either Way I Don’t Get Paid:’ Excepted Federal Workers Ponder How Long They’ll Work Without Pay

Aside from personal difficulties, employees warn of mission-critical work going undone and endangering the public.

Weston Szymanski has reported to his job at the Food and Drug Administration as normal since the beginning of the partial government shutdown. His wife, who also works at the FDA, an agency largely without appropriations despite being part of the otherwise fully funded Health and Human Services Department, is home on furlough.

Neither is getting paid.

“This weekend we sat down and went over our budget, discussed all our bills and our accounts,” Szymanski said. “We are going to immediately start pulling from our savings account. There is only so long that can go on.”

Similar conversations are happening in living rooms across the country, including among the roughly 500,000 federal employees working every day who will most likely not receive their scheduled paycheck on Friday. Those workers are weighing not just how they will make their mortgage, credit card or child care payments, but—with President Trump warning the shutdown could continue for months or even a year—how long they can afford to work for free.

“Everybody who currently has an offer on the table from a private firm, they are currently thinking about that offer far more heavily than they would normally,” Szymanski said, noting that FDA employees have specialized skills and knowledge that is highly coveted in the private sector. “For private industry, it will be quite easy pickings here in the near future when it comes to poaching.”

He hoped the situation would resolve itself quickly: “How long is this going to last when you are still going to have a workforce to call back?”

'Everyone Feels Trapped'

Troy Troitino is a teacher at the Federal Correctional Institution Miami, part of the Justice Department’s Bureau of Prisons. He, like all bureau employees who work inside a facility, is deemed excepted during the shutdown. Like Szymanski and his wife, Troitino said many of his colleagues are married to other federal prison workers and therefore have no income currently coming into their households.

“One hundred percent of their income comes from the agency,” Troitino said. “At one point or another they’re going to have to make a decision for their families, for their kids.”

Bureau employees have begun asking if they can take leave without pay to take jobs in construction or driving for Uber, Troitino said, but management has instructed employees that any workers who pursue that option will be considered absent without leave and face discipline.

“Everyone feels trapped,” Troitino said. “This is nothing more than slavery. They’re forcing us to work, don’t want to pay us and are putting us in a bad situation.”

A federal court has deemed the situation illegal in which excepted and exempted federal employees (often colloquially referred to as "essential") currently find themselves. A judge ruled in 2014 that making employees work only on the promise of back pay violated the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act, and later said those workers were entitled to compensatory, monetary damages. About 25,000 employees who signed onto that collective action lawsuit are still awaiting those payments.

Not all federal workers are threatening to head for the exits. Brandon Miller, a Federal Aviation Administration controller at the Potomac Consolidated Terminal Radar Approach Control, said he and his colleagues are dedicated to ensuring a safe and efficient air system “no matter what is going on around us.” Miller said, however, that mission-critical work is falling by the wayside. A meeting between industry and FAA officials to finalize a plan to update air traffic patterns in three Washington-area airports by November has been canceled, putting at risk three years of work. Employees have been called back from FAA’s academy, putting to waste five weeks of training and blocking the pipeline of new talent. No training of any kind is currently taking place.

At the FDA, Szymanski said the vast majority of “surveillance work”—both random and scheduled inspections of the production of food, drugs, cosmetics, medical devices, biological devices, tobacco and other goods—has been halted. Inspections are only taking place at locations where there is already a reasonably high likelihood or known contamination. Otherwise, no enforcement or regulatory actions are taking place.

“The things that catch violators are not occurring to anywhere near the same level,” Szymanski said. “That in turn puts American consumers at risk.”

Excepted FDA employees, who Szymanski said are only conducting a portion of their normal duties, are growing frustrated. With the assumption 350,000 furloughed workers, like his wife, will ultimately receive back pay as well, those forced to work throughout the shutdown feel they have drawn the short straw.

“We’re sort of getting screwed,” he said. “Everyone is getting screwed, but we’re working.”

Szymanski said he has climbed the ladder at FDA since the 2013 shutdown and is now in a better position to handle a few weeks without pay. Still, he now has a three-year-old daughter who has to eat, and who he would like to continue taking to gymnastics and day care. (He noted that even though his wife is home on furlough, they are, for now, continuing to use the day care because they would otherwise lose their spot.)

'Confusion and Anger'

Joel La Chance is an excepted meat inspector at the Agriculture Department. His family has started calling the electric and gas companies for relief on their bills, as well as the bank financing his mortgage. He prefers this situation to the mid-90s shutdown, when he was forced to declare bankruptcy. For now, he said, the Nebraska plant he inspects is operating normally, and all 10 USDA employees who report there are showing up every day. La Chance imagined a scenario in which half of the nation’s meat inspectors decide to call in sick for a week during an extended shutdown, however, saying it would virtually halt food source production in the United States. Even a slowdown at his plant, which oversees the slaughter of thousands of pigs each week, would cause a sizable disruption.

“That more or less goes through everybody’s head at one point in time during something like this,” La Chance said of the possibility employees stop showing up to work. He said most of the other work around him is minimum wage, however, lamenting that he would have to pick up two or three jobs to equal his normal federal paycheck.

Several employees noted the paradox of their current situation: they want to moonlight to create a source of supplemental income, but cannot get approval for side jobs because the human resources and ethics officials who typically sign off on that work are furloughed. Certain regulatory agencies, like FDA, have particularly strict rules about moonlighting because they want to ensure their staffers do not find side jobs at the companies they regulate.

“No one has any answers,” said Troitino, the prisons teacher. “The people in the central office are furloughed. There’s no guidance.”

“There’s a lot of confusion and anger,” he added.

At some agencies, the anger already appears to have boiled over. Amid reports that Transportation Security Administration employees have already begun calling in sick, Hydrick Thomas, president of the TSA union, said some of the 44,000 workers he represents are not sticking around.

“Some of them have already quit and many are considering quitting the federal workforce because of this shutdown,” Thomas said, cautioning that the loss of workers will create a “massive security risk” for American travelers.  

Szymanski likened his situation to that of an indentured servant, but said he does not know what his breaking point would be. For now, he plans to continue working, but after a few more missed paychecks he will reassess that decision.

“I work or I resign,” he said. “Either way, I don’t get paid.”

Miller, the FAA controller who is committed to staying on the job, said he learned his lesson during the 2013 shutdown. He and his family have set aside money in case he ever had to go without pay again, but said never in his “wildest dreams” did he envision a shutdown lasting as long as this one is shaping up to drag on. They are spending only on “the basic necessities of life,” he said, namely food, gas and shelter.

“We’ve stopped all spending if it’s not essential," he said. “Kind of like the government, I guess.”