From prisons to disaster response, federal workers look ahead with trepidation

By Kathryn Watson

/ CBS News

Farmers' federal aid on hold due to shutdown

With the partial government shutdown poised to become the longest in history, federal workers outside the greater D.C. area have a message for Washington: The funding lapse is creating real problems and, in some cases, hurting security interests.

The partial shutdown, which affects funding for the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the State Department, the IRS and other key agencies, is forcing roughly 420,000 federal employees to work without pay, and another roughly 380,000 to be furloughed. President Trump has threatened to declare a national emergency to fund his border wall, and potentially end the shutdown stalemate, as reaching a deal with Congress looks less and less likely.

Most affected federal employees missed their first paycheck Friday.

"I wish they would understand we're not all living in the Beltway," said Forrest Lanning, a Federal Emergency Management Agency earthquake and volcano program manager based in California.

Lanning has spent recent weeks in Paradise, Calif., responding to the deadly fire there that has left dozens dead. He was scheduled to help with FEMA-funded permanent housing construction on the Northern Mariana Islands, but that trip has been delayed indefinitely as the shutdown lingers.

Lanning says the shutdown isn't significantly affecting disaster response — at least, not yet — but it is destroying the morale of FEMA responders continuing to help with disasters without pay, he said, and there has been some confusion within the agency as to what expenses the agency is able to cover during the shutdown. Lanning said he can work without pay for one paycheck, but past that, "then I really have to start digging."

"It's probably not affecting the ability to respond to disaster because the people who are required to work do work or are working, but it does destroy the morale," Lanning said.

"We're kind of the face of the government out here, and any bad news on the news is coming back to us," he added.

Here's what some other current and former officials have to say about the shutdown and how it has affected their jobs and their lives.

Coast Guard aviator, North Carolina

The Trump administration has reportedly been working to ensure that Coast Guard workers, who fall under the Department of Homeland Security, are paid. But that isn't happening yet.

One Coast Guard aviator based on the North Carolina coast said he doesn't understand how allowing DHS to go without funding promotes security. His pay stub Friday was $0.00.

"My wife and I are alright financially for a couple paychecks, but after that it's not looking very good," said the aviator, who is not identified because he said he's not supposed to express political views as a Coast Guard employee.

"I'm also getting called back into work next work as an essential personnel, so I will be working without getting paid. I don't understand shutting down the Department of Homeland Security, which looks out for our borders and country. I help keep the helicopters of the coast guard flying for the Coast Guard to do their duty — for free."

The aviator was hoping to find other work while the shutdown drags on, but was notified he was moved to essential personnel and has had to work 10-hour days this week, making it nearly impossible to find another source of income. He and his wife, with a one-year-old child, have been living with his parents as they fix up their house to sell it, but those plans have been put on hold for now.

"It must be nice to be a billionaire…that he doesn't have to worry about a paycheck," the aviator said of Mr. Trump.

Eric Young, president of the American Federation of Government Employees' Council of Prison Locals

Eric Young worked for the Bureau of Prisons for 21 years, and now represents roughly 33,000 federal Bureau of Prison employees. Young said failing to pay correctional officers responsible for custody of roughly 151,700 federal inmates, some of whom are convicted of rape and murder, makes no sense.

"That's what's been frustrating for many of our colleagues," Young said. "We've got the president that many of my colleagues voted for under the auspices that he was going to be a law and order president. Well, I'm telling everybody you can't have law and order without the Bureau of Prisons."

"Here you want a wall on the outside but you're not worried about the inside," Young added.

Federal prisons were already short-staffed before the shutdown began, he said, and now, "There's no room for someone not showing up." Federal correctional officers make between $26,000 and $61,000, and most of the federal prisons are in Middle America, Young noted.

Young is trying to persuade some of the hardest-hit employees, like a husband and wife who are both federal correctional officers and have a severely handicapped son who lives on a ventilator, to speak on the record.

"I've been trying to get them to talk but they are so fearful of the agency retaliating against them," he added.

"They are scared, are they going to get evicted out of their place?" Young added. "They are thinking they could possibly lose their son."

National Weather Service forecaster

One National Weather Service forecaster who asked not to be named for fear of retaliation by supervisors says she and her partner are scaling back on day-to-day spending and dipping into savings to pay for bills — and are debating whether to ask creditors for help. She is an excepted employee, meaning she's expected to work.

But her father recently died, and as his only child, she has had to take time off to arrange his estate. The forecaster said she's grateful to be able to help her family, but the stress is taking its toll.

"Of course now I'm bleeding money taking care of my father's final arrangements. And I have no idea how long this will last? I can't apply for unemployment. I have no guarantee I'll be paid. At what point does this become unsustainable?" she said.

The shutdown "has made one of the most difficult times in my life even more stressful," she said.

Still, the forecaster said she knows others worse off than her, and she's looking for ways to help them out.

"As scared and precarious as we may be, there are people that I know that are much worse off," she said. "I'm trying to find ways to help those friends, too."

What's next?

It's unclear exactly where the shutdown stalemate ends. The president said Thursday he will "probably" and perhaps "100 percent" declare a national emergency to fund his border wall if Congress can't reach an agreement on his border wall. Even if he does declare a national emergency, Congress still has to pass legislation to reopen the federal government, and the next federal paycheck wouldn't be for another two weeks.

The Senate and House have voted to provide back pay to federal employees after the shutdown ends, and that bill heads to Mr. Trump for his signature.

But how long will this shutdown last? "Whatever it takes," the president told reporters on Capitol Hill Wednesday.

First published on January 12, 2019

© 2019 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Kathryn Watson

Kathryn Watson is a politics reporter for CBS News Digital.

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