Unpaid air traffic controllers are waiting tables and driving for Uber in the time left over from their 10-hour shifts tracking the position and speed of aircraft to prevent collisions.
These are the federal employees who each day see to the safety of millions of airborne passengers. And they are nearing a breaking point amid the longest government shutdown in history, according to the head of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, Paul Rinaldi, whose union is suing the Trump administration for freezing the earnings of members, who are preparing to miss a second paycheck on Friday.
"This is adding risk into the system,” Rinaldi said in an interview with The Washington Post. “I don’t know when a system gets to that critical mass, but when you take away equipment that helps us see that a plane is on the appropriate runway, that’s risk in the system. When some of our radars are down, and we’re not able to tell the pilot that there’s dangerous weather ahead until we get a pilot report of it, that’s risk in the system.”
In a blistering statement issued on Wednesday, Rinaldi joined the leaders of unions representing pilots and flight attendants in expressing “growing concern for the safety and security of our members, our airlines, and the traveling public due to the government shutdown.”
The demand to reopen the government underlined the enormous strain that the nation’s aviation system was under as the partial shutdown entered its fifth week. On Sunday, 1 in 10 Transportation Security Administration agents did not show up to work, bringing checkpoints to a standstill.
The union leaders, who together represent about 130,000 aviation professionals, said they “cannot even calculate the level of risk currently at play, nor predict the point at which the entire system will break.”
“It is unprecedented,” claimed the statement, signed by Rinaldi, as well as by Air Line Pilots Association President Joe DePete and Association of Flight Attendants-CWA President Sara Nelson. They called it “unconscionable” that their members were being required to work without pay, "and in an air safety environment that is deteriorating by the day.”
It was possible, the statement acknowledged, that safety reporting data “used to identify and implement corrective actions to reduce risks and prevent accidents” was not being fully combed over because of reduced resources.
While air traffic controllers were committed to maintaining a safe, efficient flow of planes, Rinaldi told The Post the shutdown had stripped away crucial safeguards. He said officials on the job were toiling without the aid of tactical specialists, training specialists, support staff specialists, quality-assurance specialists and other staff deemed nonessential.
“This is a stressful work environment,” Rinaldi said. “What this shutdown is doing is putting the stress on steroids."
Already, he noted, staffing at air traffic control facilities was at a 30-year low. Under pressure, new hires were beginning to resign, he said, and those eligible to retire — currently 20 percent of the aviation workforce — were inclined to cut their losses and leave the profession. Americans in highly technical, middle-class jobs were struggling to find money for child care, he said, forcing them to call in sick.
The lengths to which federal employees are going to support themselves have not gone unnoticed on Capitol Hill, where congressional Democrats have laid blame for the shutdown on the shoulders of President Trump. Rep. Mike Levin (D-Calif.) labeled it “insane” that an air traffic controller would have to moonlight as an Uber driver.
Meanwhile, Lara Trump, the president’s daughter-in-law and campaign adviser, this week said that the 800,000 government workers going without paychecks were experiencing “a little bit of pain” but sacrificing “for the future of our county.” The president, for his part, has claimed without evidence that government employees support his position. Thus far, he has been unwavering in his refusal to open shuttered agencies until Democrats agree to fund a border wall to the tune of $5.7 billion.
It was unclear if his capitulation to the demand of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) that he delay his State of the Union address until after the shutdown would shift his stance. The two sides appeared no closer to an agreement even as Senate leaders scheduled a set of votes for Thursday — a flurry of legislative activity that promised mainly to expose their deep differences.
With the nation’s leaders deadlocked, evidence mounted of the toll of the shutdown, affecting core government services and federal institutions while also reaching beyond the public sector.
Last week, the State Department was forced to cancel an international summit on border security — because of the shutdown over border security. The FBI Agents Association has warned that funding uncertainties have compromised counterterrorism operations.
The droves of Internal Revenue Service employees skipping work will hinder the agency’s ability to process taxpayer refunds. The secretary of the Smithsonian Institution wrote in a USA Today op-ed Tuesday that the shutdown is costing the prized institution $1 million a week.
And in the private sector, companies that do business with the government are losing $200 million a week, according to estimates.
Aviation professionals have been particularly vocal about their difficult working conditions. Air traffic controllers, pilots and flight attendants rallied outside the Capitol earlier this month, calling for an end to the shutdown. Soon after, air traffic controllers in Canada sent pizza to their American counterparts.
“The great pizza delivery has gone viral,” Peter Duffey, the president of the Canadian Air Traffic Control Association, tweeted. “Small gesture of kindness, big gesture of solidarity.”
But scenes of federal workers lining up for food aid cast the “great pizza delivery” in a new light. The show of solidarity also underscored a desperate economic reality.
Government workers, whose job it is to serve the citizens of the United States, are being served food in what amounts to a government bread line. Public employees are turning to precarious sources of assistance to feed themselves, including the philanthropy of celebrity chef José Andrés.