'A Dangerous And Irresponsible Experiment': South Florida Workers Feel Worsening Impact of Shutdown

Jan 13, 2019
Originally published on January 14, 2019 12:06 pm

Daniel Garcia-Barbon’s wish when he was a teenager was to become an air traffic controller. The fast-paced, mistake-free environment of the work seemed thrilling.

Now, 10 years since fulfilling his dream, Garcia-Barbon’s job is failing to support him, his wife and two children. The air traffic controller in Miami, who’s working without pay due to the partial government shutdown, says he will now use his savings to pay a mortgage. Spending on other luxuries is no longer an option.

“I have a four-year-old daughter,” Garcia-Barbon said on Friday. “Her birthday is coming up, and we had a trip to Disney planned. Just yesterday, we decided to cancel the trip.”

For workplaces and thousands of families across South Florida, the fallout from the now longest shutdown in history is intensifying fast. Friday was the first day federal employees did not receive a paycheck. Private sector workers are preparing for pay cuts as businesses close up. Some Hurricane forecasting research is suspended. Miami International Airport has temporarily closed a terminal.

During a press conference Friday, South Florida Democratic Reps. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Debbie Mucarsel Powell and Donna Shalala argued President Donald Trump is holding families hostage over his demand for funding for a U.S.-Mexico border wall.

They called on the Republican-controlled U.S. Senate to end the 22-day shutdown by passing a spending package already approved by the U.S. House that excludes wall funding. The Senate can then override a potential veto by Trump, they said.

“What we need to do is sit down at the table with the government open, come together and negotiate an end to this manufactured crisis,” said Wasserman-Schultz, criticizing Trump’s references to a border crisis.

But Republicans refuse to capitulate. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said the Senate will not move on any spending package that Trump does not support. Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said this week that giving in would be the "end" of Trump’s presidency and the Republican Party.

Several impacted workers say they do not want to take a partisan side in the debate. Still, for Destiny Taylor, the impasse has forced her to consider looking for a second job.

As a private sector worker at a Pizza Hut in Terminal G at Miami International Airport, Taylor initially wasn't affected by the shutdown. But now the airport has temporarily closed the concourse since Saturday.   

Federal TSA employees—who are working without pay—are calling in sick at double the normal rate, airport spokesman Jack Varela said. TSA managers have questioned whether they have enough screeners to operate the checkpoint.

“There’s 40 something employees that have been calling in sick" each day, Varela said, adding that Terminal G is open in the mornings but has been closing for the afternoons until Monday. Flights are arriving at the terminal, but outgoing planes must leave from other concourses. Varela stressed that passengers should not feel any effects.

But the closure means the Pizza Hut and other shops in Terminal G have also reduced their operations. Wendi Walsh of the Unite Here union, which represents concession workers at the airport, said employers for now are shifting affected workers to other stores in the airport. But Taylor fears another closure of the terminal could affect her hours. 

“If my hours are being cut, I can’t afford to pay almost anything," said Taylor, who earns about a minimum wage. “We don’t know how long this is going to last and we just have to be prepared for the worst.”

The effects of the shutdown are materializing in other ways. Although Hurricane season begins June 1, scientists and forecasters use the months in between for research. Most people at the National Hurricane Center continue to work without pay. Still if any research slows, data gathering could be impacted. Work has already stopped on a hurricane intensity model that relies on data from hurricane hunters, ocean buoys and satellites. 

The shutdown also threatens beneficiaries of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. And low-income families could face eviction as government-subsidized affordable housing contracts continue to expire. More than 1,000 federal rental assistance contracts across the country have not been renewed due to funding freezes at the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

At the aiport, although officials say the shutdown has not compromised air safety, some aspects of the aviation industry have also weakened. Garcia-Barbon, the air traffic controller, said the missed paycheck is distracting workers who should focus solely on ensuring that planes take off and land safely. 

Robert Guevara, a Federal Aviation Administration inspector, added many airplane safety inspections have ceased because inspectors are furloughed.

“This is a dangerous and irresponsible experiment that the FAA is conducting with the safety of the American public,” he said.

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