Gabe Pacheco, a San Diego border patrol agent, is worried that the warning light on his dashboard means his transmission will finally give out next week, just as he could be required to work without a paycheck.
Because lawmakers in Washington are holding funding for the Department of Homeland Security hostage in a fight over immigration, Pacheco won’t risk paying $6,000 for a new transmission. If his 2006 Nissan Pathfinder does break down, he said, he’ll try to carpool.
“It’s kind of a gamble,” Pacheco, 49, who is also a union official, said in a telephone interview as he watched the California-Mexico border with a radio and rifle beside him. “I told my wife we got to get past this.”
After Friday, Pacheco and more than 200,000 government employees deemed essential at DHS would still have to report to their posts, even though their pay would stop unless Congress finds a solution. As the deadline nears, House Republicans still want to use a Homeland Security spending bill to reverse President Barack Obama’s executive actions on immigration.
Workers in DHS agencies like the Border Patrol, the Transportation Security Administration and Immigration and Customs Enforcement are feeling frustrated and angry as they gear up for a possible temporary loss of pay.
Mac Johnson, a lead screener at the Raleigh-Durham International Airport in North Carolina, said the 16-day federal government shutdown in 2013 “practically destroyed morale” among his colleagues. Since then, he has tried to save up for another shutdown, and told others to do the same.
The problem, he said, is they’re living paycheck-to-paycheck. So he’s also getting ready to lend gas money for colleagues to get to work.
“I don’t think it’s appropriate for federal employees to be held hostage,” said Johnson, also a union official, as were the others interviewed.
If Congress can’t agree on a bill to fund DHS by Friday, the agency estimates about 90 percent of its 240,000 employees will have to work anyway.
That’ll include about 50,000 TSA screeners, 20,000 border patrol agents, and 20,000 Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, as well as employees at the Coast Guard and FEMA, according to the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents most DHS workers.
If precedent holds, many of these employees would get paid only after Congress reaches an agreement to provide funding. There have been complaints in the past that back pay arrived slowly.
Many DHS employees say it’s unfair to hold their paychecks back -- for any amount of time -- because of what they see as a political fight that barely relates to their work.
“It’s terrible,” said Stacy Bodtmann, a transportation safety officer at Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey. “Nobody should have to work for free.”
Bodtmann and other DHS workers said they’ve heard concerns over paying for childcare, mortgages and insurance premiums. They remembered bringing in sandwiches to share during the 2013 shutdown and even giving out information about soup kitchens. They described emotions including frustration, anger and even betrayal, even as they said they hoped a shutdown can be avoided this time.
Bodtmann said she has support to make it through if there’s a shutdown, but that morale probably will suffer and some employees, who may make as little as $30,000 a year, will find they simply can’t afford to be dedicated to the mission.
“How long do you really think people are going to go to work when they’re not getting paid?” she said.
Adam Jackimowicz, a lead screener at the Detroit airport, estimated that about 30 percent of those he works with are single parents who will lose all means of support during a shutdown.
“When you’re making $30,000 a year, and you lose $1,000, that’s your whole house payment or maybe two house payments,” he said.
He worried that a shutdown could be dangerous, especially with recent terror attacks in Europe and a threat against shopping malls in the U.S.
“ISIS has already said we’re going to eventually get you,” said Jackimowicz, using another name for Islamic State. Having a shutdown would be “like telling them, ’Now’s a good time because we’re cutting back.’”
A retired police officer, Jackimowicz said he could survive a shutdown by tapping savings and a pension.
The likelihood of a shutdown is unclear. House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio said on Feb. 15 that he was prepared to let the agency shut rather than push a new funding bill without the amendments nullifying Obama’s orders. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky this week said he’s prepared to put up a clean bill and a separate measure repealing Obama’s actions.
The union workers were slow to blame either political party.
“It’s unfortunate that the Congress is putting the agency in this position,” said Tim Kauffman, a spokesman for AFGE, the DHS union.
“If you’re putting our paychecks on the line to make a political point, we’re never going to be for that,” O’Connor says.
Pacheco, who has worked at the Border Patrol for 18 years, said his wife, Barbie, doesn’t work. They support their daughter, Josie, in her early 20s, who is in school and lives with them.
He said his most immediate concern is traveling 25 miles to work if the Nissan’s transmission dies. They’re stocking up at Costco on inexpensive items that can keep for weeks, such as eggs, canned goods, rice and beans, he said.
Pacheco said they’ll have to rely on savings, as they did in 2013, if he doesn’t get paid. Then he’ll turn to his credit cards.
He said he hopes there’s a resolution before the cards are maxed out.