A team of furloughed FAA engineers head to Capitol Hill for a second day Thursday to lobby members of Congress on the plight of 4,000 engineers who will get no paycheck next week. Most congressmen have gone home for the August recess after failing to pass a bill to extend funding for the agency, but the employees are making their case to as many lawmakers as they can.
On Wednesday, they took their case to Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kerry’s (D) staff, which extended 15 minutes at 2:40 p.m. Then it was down the elevator of the Russell Senate office building to meet with Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin’s (D) staff. Then over to Longworth to meet with Rep. John Larson (D-Conn.) and Rep. Steven C. LaTourette (R-Ohio), who has hundreds of out-of-work aviation contractors in his Ohio district.
The engineers, led by Mike MacDonald, were angry. “We’re staring at a possible six weeks without pay, and they’ll all get nice suntans on their vacations,” said Dan Stefko, who flew in from Pittsburgh. While safety inspectors considered essential to the FAA mission are still coming to work without pay, there is no guarantee that the 4,000 furloughed engineers will get paid if and when Congress resolves the mess.
But the men knew that when they met with lawmakers and their staffs, they had to be evenhanded. How they got to this point is not relevant. They just want to get their people back to work.
“What a view!” MacDonald, Region X vice president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, told Larson in his opening line, pointing to the spectacular view of the Capitol dome outside the congressman’s window. “I just wish it functioned a little better.”
Larson called Congress’s failure to extend the FAA authorization a “travesty.” He said House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) “should call us back into session” to take care of it.
Bob Aitken, an engineer from Chicago, said: “Nobody believed they would actually walk away from this.”
“You won’t be forgotten,” Larson, chairman of the House Democratic caucus told the group.
MacDonald flew in from Boston Tuesday night, buying a one-way ticket. He’s living pretty much on wintergreen Altoid mints. “I was on my phone 67 times yesterday,” he said. His eyes are red from lack of sleep.
A furloughed engineer from Albuquerque found the group and introduced herself. “Those are my guys!” Erica Vasquez said. She spotted the group from the lobby of the Russell building and recognized their NATCA shirts. Vasquez is in Washington this week to attend a management conference for Latino aviation workers.
“I want my steel-toes boots back on!” she said. Her husband, an electrical engineer who is also furloughed, is calling her every day.
“‘Don’t go overboard in Washington,’” she quoted him telling her. “‘Watch your expenses. We’re not getting paid.’”
LaTourette told the engineers that he is not going home until the FAA matter is resolved. He has spoken with Boehner several times. “This is something that has been on our radar screen for a long time,” he said.
LaTourette said he was glad the engineers have not taken to fingerpointing at congressmen. “If you succumb to the urge to pick one side over the other, it’s not going to be a happy ending.”
“It’s a fiction the House has gone on vacation without addressing your issues,” he told them. “There are people that are all over this.”
He said two congressmen hold the key to unlocking their paychecks: Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), who wants to cut funding to a $163 million program providing air service subsidies for some rural airports, and Sen. John D. Rockfeller IV (D-W.Va) who is blocking the change.
They engineers have put out calls to the senators’ staffs. No meeting yet.
The engineers are a mix of Democrats, Independents and Republicans. A few are single; the rest have kids. All have mortgages.
Asked who they blame for their predicament, MacDonald said, “We blame the whole institution of Congress that has failed us.”
Fred Rasche, a 49-year-old engineer who has worked for the FAA for 27 years, was frustrated.
“The people in my office do work, and they work hard. This Congress isn’t able to work. It doesn’t seem like government is working anymore. It’s certainly not working for us.” Rasche said.
He works as a lead engineer for a Chicago-based team overseeing the replacement of out-of-date computer systems in air traffic control towers at airports across the central United States. “We’re expected to get the job done,” he said. “We commission these towers on schedule and on budget.” All seven of the electronics engineers on his team have been furloughed, as have many other colleagues. “They’re all scared,” he said. “A lot of us live paycheck to paycheck.”
Rasche has four children, including a 17-year-old due to start college and a 14-year-old starting high school. After getting a call Saturday informing him that he had been furloughed, Rasche sat down with his wife to review which bills had to be paid and which can wait. They have enough to pay their August mortgage and maybe their September payment on their Arlington Heights home. They have already cashed in several life insurance policies and are planning to run up their credit card debt.
“We’re probably going to have to run through the college savings plan,” he said. His wife, who works for a medical office, is considering taking a second job. “I’m going to start looking at what’s out there,” Rasche said. “I hate to walk away from 27 years at the FAA.”