As the partial federal government shutdown grinds on, the stress on affected federal workers in Florida is showing. They’ve now gone 32 days without receiving a paycheck.
“The morale is at the bottom of the barrel, but they hang in there,” says Tampa meteorologist Dan Sobian, speaking about his colleagues at the National Weather Service, where he’s worked for the past 27 years.
The Weather Service has had to cut programs since the shutdown began last month, including a key week-long hurricane preparedness course in several Florida communities. The Weather Service normally coordinates with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to provide the course.
“To prevent that training to emergency managers really will cost people their lives,” Sobian says, referring to the information they need to know to determine whether to call for an evacuation for an approaching hurricane. “We’re sending people out there without the right training.”
There are more than 13,000 federal employees in Florida working in agencies that aren’t currently being funded, according to data collected by the Office of Personnel Management.
They include air traffic controllers, Transportation Security Administration agents and officers working in federal prisons.
Last week the Florida Phoenix met up with three correctional officers who work at Federal Correctional Institution in Tallahassee, a low security federal prison that houses male and female inmates. The officers have all been working for nearly five weeks without pay.
Iraq war veteran Sean Favero, 31, has worked as a correctional officer at FCI for the past five years.
“There’s lots of us out there across the country who did serve our country and did our part and continue to do so in this line of work, and it feels like a betrayal for the government we support,” he said from his home in Crawfordville, south of Tallahassee, last week.
Nicole Trawick, 36, has worked at FCI Tallahassee for the past four years. She handles mail for the prison and works in the Special Housing Unit, where she oversees inmates’ feeding, showering and recreational activities.
A single mom, she lives with her 13-year-old son. She’s avoided discussing the fact that no money is coming into the household.
“I’ve been watching the negotiations, but it’s gotten to the point where I stop because it’s very depressing,” she says.
She calls herself a survivor, and insists she isn’t worried about how it will all shake out. But she admits she’s mentally drained, mainly because of her concerns about her son.
“My son depends on me and I’ve kept it from him where he doesn’t understand what’s going on. I don’t tell him. But you know, paying my rent, making sure that he has food for lunch every day at school. Making sure that he’s taken care of. That’s my primary concern and the fact that I’m down to my last $100 in my checking account and I don’t know if I’m going to be able to feed him in the next couple of weeks…it’s stressful. It’s mentally stressful.”
Trawick has applied in the past week for part-time work at Costco, Sam’s Club and Badcock Home Furniture. As of press time, she hadn’t heard back from them.
Sondra Freeman, 33, was walking with her six-year-old son in Tallahassee’s Cascades Park as the sun was sinking and the wind was picking up one night last week. She called the partisan bickering between President Trump and Democratic congressional leaders troubling.
“It’s just painful to see them toy with my livelihood, and it’s still an unknown to me,” she said about the negotiations. “When’s it going to end? I need to know when it’s going to end.”
She pointed toward her son, who was playing with another young boy he had just met in the park.
“Because he depends on me,” she said, “and I depend on my paycheck to take care of my child.”
Despite the hardship that Florida’s federal workers are facing, not everyone is completely sympathetic. Some believe the story is being overplayed by the mainstream media.
“The media is acting like the sky is falling and that the whole world is going to come to an end because some government workers are not going to get their paychecks on time,” says Tampa radio talk-show host Chris Ingram, who acknowledges the rough situation for such workers. “I just think that the media is very unfairly looking for a story to fit their narrative that everything that Donald Trump does is bad.”
As you might imagine, such comments burn federal workers.
“People who have that opinion are still getting paid, and I’m sure whether they worked for the government or not, if they showed up for work tomorrow and their boss said ‘Can you keep coming to work over the next month, but we’ll pay you when we can come around to it?’ they would not be okay with that,” says Favero, the Iraq war veteran and FCI corrections officer.
Some Republicans were emboldened by an anonymous column penned by an alleged “senior official in the Trump administration” in the conservative Daily Caller last week. The official called the shutdown “an opportunity to strip wasteful government agencies for good.”
That’s a sentiment that some Florida Republicans rally around.
“As a business owner, at year-end, I evaluate all vendors, products, services, subscriptions, etc. in order to find ways to save some money. This government shutdown should serve as an opportunity for the federal government to do the same,” says Christian Ziegler, the vice-chair of the Florida Republican Party of Florida and a Sarasota County Commissioner. “Let’s take this time to look around, find inefficiencies, and cut the unnecessary fat – whether it be employees or programs – that aren’t vital to operating our country.”
Florida Democratic House Minority Leader Kionne McGhee called on Governor Ron DeSantis last week to provide Florida’s federal workers with unemployment insurance. Other Democratic governors discussed such a proposal last week, but they’re running up against Department of Labor regulations, which say that, while furloughed federal employees are eligible to collect unemployment benefits, the approximately 450,000 employees who work through the shutdown are not eligible because they are still considered employed.
Public officials are stepping up throughout the state to help unpaid government workers.
In Tallahassee, Mayor John Dailey declared that the city would not shut off anyone’s utilities “because they’re in circumstances which they have no control over.”
In Jacksonville, Mayor Lenny Curry and the City Council announced about $500,000 in small grants to help unpaid federal workers with food, housing and utility expenses.
In the Miami-Dade suburb of Miramar, Mayor Wayne Messam won unanimous approval from his city commission to waive late fees on water bills and prohibit water service shutoffs for unpaid federal employees. Messam says his city is the home to “many residents” who work for federal agencies, including his sister, who is currently furloughed from her position with Customs and Border Protection.
“It’s hurting local communities,” he says. “It’s hurting families.”
Federal workers like Nicole Trawick at FCI prison in Tallahassee say much of the public is still not very focused on their plight, and people won’t pay attention until it hits closer to home. She says that some of the regulars she sees when she works out her gym have no idea there’s a shutdown going on.
“I’m like – you forget because it’s not impacting you. You’re not sitting home at night, crying, stressing that you’ve got $100 in your bank account and you don’t know where the next meal for your child is going to come. Because you’re not getting a paycheck because Congress can’t make a decision and is still getting paid,” she says. “But a lot of responses I get from people are, “Oh, I forgot that’s going on.’ And it’s because you’re not getting impacted – yet. Once they’re impacted, then they’ll start understanding how we really feel.”
As the shutdown continues, the central focus of the conflict hasn’t changed: President Donald Trump is demanding $5.7 billion in congressional funds to help build security fencing along the Mexican border, which Democratic congressional leadership opposes, even after the president’s weekend announcement that he’d extend temporary protections for immigrants living in the U.S. for the next three years (plans his administration already terminated, critics noted).
There have been reports that some centrist-oriented Congressional Democrats – many with military backgrounds – are growing uneasy about the lack of negotiations, and hope to persuade House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to assert control over the issue of border security and restart talks with the president.
Trump did meet with a bipartisan group of members of the Problem Solving Caucus last week. That came a day after the Blue Dog Democratic Caucus – including Winter Park Rep. Stephanie Murphy and St. Petersburg Rep. Charlie Crist – blew off the opportunity to meet with Trump. Murphy and Crist blamed scheduling issues.
“His view is that we should re-open government and then have a robust discussion on how best to secure our borders,” Crist spokesperson Erin Moffet wrote in an email. “The shutdown is hurting federal workers and the Coast Guard, limiting economic growth, and putting Americans potentially at risk due to degraded services.”