AUGUSTA — Peter Uhde, of Newark, New Jersey, does not see why the U.S. government is “using average people for leverage.”

After serving 39 years in the armed forces as a chaplain, Uhde has known personally young servicemen and federal employees with families who embark on careers for their country because it seemed like the right financial choice at the time.

Now many of those families are affected by the government shutdown — the longest in history, now surpassing three full weeks — and necessary expenses can’t be paid.

“Both sides should be able to work out a deal without jeopardizing these people,” Uhde said last week. He had come to Maine to visit a family member and was waiting in line to depart from Augusta State Airport.

The government went into partial shutdown Dec. 22 when President Donald Trump and Congress could not reach a deal for appropriating funds for the 2019 fiscal year, including more than $5 billion for a wall to be built across the U.S.-Mexico border. Around 800,000 federal employees are working without pay or are on furlough.

Transportation Security Administration employees at the Augusta State Airport are still working, but without pay.

John Guimond, the airport’s manager, said he has not seen a change in the presence or staffing of the TSA employees providing security at the airport.

“They were positive and doing a great job,” said Kat McLeod, of Belfast, who had just gone through security Jan. 7 and was waiting to board a plane.

TSA employees nationally are considered to be essential personnel and must continue working through a government shutdown.

“Seeing it in person makes it seem very real,” said Joe Holmes, also of Belfast, who was traveling to Central America.

“There have been no complaints from passengers or staff,” Guimond said. “Things are moving safely.”

Four TSA workers staffed the boarding area Jan. 7 at the Augusta airport, and three were there Friday. All workers declined to comment.

“They’re dedicated public servants,” said Gabriel Pedreira, legislative and political organizer for the American Federation of Government Employees, District 2, for New York and New England. “What many don’t realize is that nearly a third of all federal employees are veterans, and they have a commitment to serve their country.”

ECONOMIC IMPACT

Transportation Security Administration screeners examine luggage Monday at the Augusta State Airport. The federal employees are deemed essential, but they have been working without pay since Dec. 22, when the federal government was shut down. Kennebec Journal photo by Andy Molloy

On Friday, TSA workers and other federal employees missed their first paychecks, Pedreira said, and it’s looking as though they will not be paid the following paycheck two weeks later, Jan. 25.

“This is when it’ll really start to hit home for these guys,” said Pedreira, who hopes that the workers will be given back pay, but it’s not confirmed. “If they don’t get it, it’s really unfair.”

On Friday, Congress sent a bill to Trump that would authorize giving federal employees back pay.

An average TSA worker in the Northeast makes a salary of $30,000 to $35,000, Pedreira said. The workers are eligible to apply for unemployment benefits, Pedreira said, but those can take two or three weeks to begin.

As of Friday, Boston’s Logan International Airport was not recommending passengers arrive any earlier than usual. Miami International Airport, however, was recommending arriving at least two hours early for domestic flights or three hours for international flights, “due to the federal funding lapse,” it said on its website.

Philip Trostel, professor of economics and policy at the University of Maine, said the shutdown could have a significant negative effect, but central Maine and the country won’t feel those effects immediately in the way that federal employees and their families are experiencing.

“The real loss is the reduction in government services,” he said. “We pay taxes for government safety, and those will be compromised the longer the shutdown goes on. The impact is that the morale of government employees must be suffering immensely.”

Trostel said that “there’s a fair risk that if this goes on for a significant period of a time, this could trigger a recession.”

It’s hard to predict, he said, but there are signs. The Federal Reserve is raising interest rates and tightening money policies, and inflation is going up strongly, but wages are not increasing much.

“We’ll know more in six months,” he said, adding that the ability to forecast changes with the economy.

WHAT EMPLOYEES CAN DO

Acting state Labor Commissioner Laura Fortman confirmed federal employees can apply for unemployment benefits, but they need to do so through her department.

“The Department of Labor will be working to swiftly process unemployment claims for employees impacted by the federal shutdown,” she said in a statement Thursday. “Federal employees filing for unemployment cannot file via self-service due to the process to access federal wage information.”

Career Center managers have been provided a direct unemployment insurance contact to handle those claims. Claimants can call (800) 593-7660 for assistance.

On its website and its Twitter page, the U.S. Office of Personnel Management offered sample letters for federal employees to give mortgange lenders and other creditors to explain their financial situation. The templates include directions on how to approach the creditors and deliver the letter.

The federal office doesn’t have money for emergency relief for workers, Pedreira said.

Abigail Austin — 621-5631

[email protected]

Twitter: @AbigailAustinKJ

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