“It’s a topic of conversation every day,” James Brazel, a national airspace operations manager, said of the government shutdown. “We have this joke at work — we say, ‘Another day, another promised dollar’ — but the joke is becoming a reality.”
In his 22 years with New York Terminal Radar Approach Control in Westbury, which contracts with the Federal Aviation Administration, this is the first time Brazel has received a paycheck with no monetary value. And despite the shutdown, he has continued to work, sometimes 24-hour shifts, without pay. “I’m considered an essential employee,” he said, “so I still have to do my job.”
Brazel, who lives in Plainview, shared his story at a news conference at the Sagamore Hill National Historic Site on Jan. 11. He was joined by State Sen. Jim Gaughran and State Assemblyman Charles Lavine, who announced a food and supply drive to benefit federal workers during the shutdown — which, a day after the news conference, be-came the longest in the nation’s history.
“These federal workers have mortgages, rent payments, kids in college, and every day they’re struggling more and more,” said Gaughran. “This is our way to do a little bit to help those in need, and hopefully it’s a very short drive.”
The lawmakers will be collecting food, personal care products, household supplies, pet food and other items at their offices. They have also partnered with agencies in the public and private sectors, including the Long Island Federation of Labor and Long Island Cares, to expand the drive to other local government and union offices, businesses and supermarkets (see box).
John Durso, president of the federation, said he had visited Washington, D.C., days earlier. Before his flight home, he said, he talked with Transportation Security Administration agents, who are required to work through the shutdown. “I asked them why some of them hadn’t called in sick, and they said, ‘This is our country, and this is our responsibility,’” Durso recalled. “I wish our leaders felt that same duty to the American public.”
As the Herald Gazette went to press, the shutdown had far surpassed the previous 21-day record under President Bill Clinton in 1995. There have been 21 gaps in government funding since 1976, according to The New York Times, though the expanse of those shutdowns has varied. In the current shutdown, about 380,000 federal employees were required to stay home, while another 420,000, like Brazel, were working without pay. Locally, the shutdown affected 14,000 to 16,000 federal workers on Long Island.
Paule Pachter, the chief executive officer of Long Island Cares, said his office received almost 500 calls last week from government employees who had expressed worries about feeding their families. “This is a domestic crisis for Long Islanders,” Pachter said. “Many [workers] now have to rely on food banks to get their families through. They have been placed in jeopardy because of the shutdown.”
During their daylong shifts, Brazel and other technical operations personnel are responsible for certifying, maintaining and repairing equipment that air traffic controllers use to secure air space over the tristate area. Since the shutdown, he said, “Things are tense.”
“This is someplace we’ve never been before,” Brazel add-ed, “so it’s nerve-wracking.”
At home, he worries about paying tuition for his daughter, a college sophomore, and caring for his wife, who is a breast cancer survivor. “She still goes through treatments every three weeks, and there are all kinds of co-pays we have to pay,” Brazel said. “We have savings, but it’s only going to last for so long, and she doesn’t need the stress. Cancer thrives on stress.”
Lavine closed out the news conference by recalling when, as a youth, he helped collect items to benefit families in Europe who were left with nothing following World War II.
“It’s shameful, and painful, that we’re taking the same steps to support our friends, families and neighbors during this needless exercise,” he said. “Today we stand in resistance to provide help for our federal workers who have been frozen out by this fiat on the part of the president.”