NASA employees brace for prolonged shutdown

Debts pile up as furloughed workers face first payday without a check

For the 1,200 federal employees at NASA Ames, the full brunt of the federal shutdown is hitting home this week.

Friday is payday -- or more precisely, it would be payday if not for the mandatory furloughs for its non-essential federal workers. For the first time since the partial government shut down last month, the civil servants at Ames are missing out on their usual paycheck, and that spells bad news for NASA's talent pool.

Plenty of workers must now pay their mortgages, student loans or routine bills without their usual income streams. And those debts will quickly start compounding, said Janette Rocha, a NASA accountant who also serves as chief steward for the Ames Federal Employee Union.

Describing her own situation, Rocha said she is the main provider for her family, which includes two grandchildren with special-needs, and her husband, who can't work due to a pulmonary disease. But financially, she counts herself as fortunate when compared to the hardships faced by her colleagues.

"We have workers who can't feed their kids, and it could be a month or two months before we get paid," Rocha said. "We're being held hostage for a border wall that won't work."

The federal shutdown began on Dec. 21 due to a political impasse over a spending bill to fund most government operations. President Donald Trump has refused to sign the bill because he insists it must include $5.7 billion for a wall on the Mexico border.

On Thursday, Jan. 10, the Ames union set up a temporary relief station out of a hotel room near Moffett Field. Through the day, furloughed workers streamed in to pick up $100 checks to help pay for groceries, gas or other expenses. Essentially, the union was giving back the employees some of their dues. It wasn't much, but every little bit helped, Rocha said.

For members who need extra help, the union had also organized a no-interest loan program through the Menlo Survey Credit Union. Other organizations, including the Community Services Agency, are urging federal employees who are struggling to sign up for social services, including free groceries or rental assistance.

Regardless of the aid, a prolonged shutdown causes a huge hit to morale, potentially pushing some Ames workers to seek new employment. In past furloughs, NASA Ames reportedly lost some of its researchers and engineers after they were poached by local tech companies.

Rocha recalled the 16-day government shutdown in 2013. During that pay lapse, she remembers losing a highly talented cybersecurity expert who worked in NASA's supercomputer division. He opted to join Google, which offered him nearly double the salary. It was just one example of the "brain drain" that can result at NASA from the shutdown, she said.

Among the employees seeking aid on Thursday was Brenden Sanborn, who said missing a paycheck will make it hard for him to support his wife and two daughters.

“I have a lot of colleagues, including myself, who, if this goes on for even another week or two, we’re going to have to find another career outside the government,” Sanborn said.

Joel Lachter, a computer scientist in NASA's human systems integration division, said was relatively secure as a Mountain View homeowner. He was using the furlough time to learn the ukelele and piano. But it still represented a huge setback for his various work projects, he said.

"I'm most worried about the contractors who aren't going to get back pay, or the younger employees who don't have savings," he said. "For me, it's just annoying. You're a professional, and all your work and everything just has to stop."

Ames union members joined other federal workers on Thursday for a protest rally at the EPA headquarters in San Francisco.

Magali Gauthier contributed to this report.

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9 people like this
Posted by NASA_Retired2015
a resident of another community
on Jan 11, 2019 at 4:58 pm

I’m retired from NASA and have experienced a government shutdown. It’s not a good feeling and knowing that federal employees are being treated as pawns. When politicians can’t do the jobs they were elected to do, they don’t deserve to get paid and should be replaced. It’s been proven time and again how devistating and costly it is to conduct an orderly shutdown and then to start up the government again. Millions of wasted tax dollars. This pattern of behavior has to stop once and for all.

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