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"Layers Of Safety Starting To Peel Away:" Week 4 Of Shutdown Erodes South Florida Federal Agencies

Lily Oppenheimer
Local members of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association stop passengers to talk about the impact of the government shutdown on airport workers in the Miami International Airport on Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2019.

Carrying coladas, purse-sized puppies and mountains of luggage, passengers at the terminal of Miami International Airport rushed on Wednesday to board departing flights, going about their usual routines. Many ignored the members of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, also known as NATCA, standing in the middle of the chaos, passing out flyers.

Those flyers went into detail about how the longest government shutdown in U.S. history is endangering the safety of every person boarding a flight.

Jim Marinitti, the NATCA’s southern regional vice president, said the longer this shutdown continues, the less comfortable the public should feel about flying.

Air traffic controllers, he said, are the folks on the front lines. The last thread holding everything together, part of an intricate safety system that most of the public doesn’t necessarily understand.

“Safety is our number 1 priority. But as this continues to go on, we are seeing the layers of safety, the redundancies of the system that keep the sky safe, starting to peel away,” Marinitti said.

“While we do this interview, if we mess up, we can do a second take. But as an air traffic controller, we have to get it right the first time -- if we don’t, catastrophic things happen.”

Credit Lily Oppenheimer / WLRN
Jim Marinitti and other local members of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association stop passengers inside Miami International Airport on Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2019.

Marinitti has been an air-traffic controller for the last 30 years. Deemed a non-essential employee, he and approximately three thousand NATCA-represented Federal Aviation Administration workers are furloughed nationwide.More than 24,000 FAA employees hace been working without pay. According to NATCA officials, nearly 500 of those air traffic controllers are stationed across South Florida. 

“The controllers, who have enough to worry about while trying to keep the skies safe, are now worried about their mortgage, childcare, car payments...there is no support system anymore in the aviation system in this country,” he said.

“Airspace procedures, equipment upgrades, aircraft certifications, none of this is taking place right now. The entire national airspace system is on hold while the legislators in the white house in Washington D.C. try to figure out what they want to do.”

Marinitti has listened to stories of single mothers taking care of disabled parents, families unable to pay the mortgage and young workers without a savings cushion. He said this shutdown may worsen an already dire staffing crisis.  According to NATCA, nearly 20 percent of air traffic controllers are also eligible to retire. So, he said, what incentive is there for them to stay?

“We are at a 30-year low of certified professional air traffic controllers in this country,” Marinitti said.

Credit Lily Oppenheimer / WLRN
Passengers at the Miami International Airport during the longest government shutdown in U.S. history on Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2019.

On Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Richard J. Leon dismissed NATCA's request forarestraining order that would require the government to pay its employees or allow them to stay home.The claim alleged that unpaid work violates labor laws and the Constitution.

The union is one of several that have sued over unpaid work, charging the federal government of “depriving them of their hard-earned compensation without the requisite due process,” since Dec. 22.

Marinitti's family has been hit especially hard by the shutdown because more than one member depends on a government salary.

“We are truly just looking for the wages we’ve already earned, which is why we filed the lawsuit that is working its way through the courts right now,” he said. “We’re dipping into savings, we’re working on it.”

Although he denied the initial request for a restraining order, judge Leon will be hearing more union arguments during another hearing scheduled for Jan. 31.

"People Can Only Help So Much" 

In Sunrise, another furloughed worker in Miami’s U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Denise Benjamin, is opening her home up for Airbnb bookings to hopefully save enough money for her February 1st mortgage.

Originally from the Caribbean nation of Trinidad and Tobago, Benjamin also prides herself in making a mean homemade hot sauce.

Credit Lily Oppenheimer / WLRN
Denise Benjamin, a furloughed HUD employee, in her Sunrise home with her daughter on Monday, Jan. 14, 2019.

But, she said, even though she ships and sells countless jars to family and friends, that and the Airbnb won’t be enough for her mortgage and other bills.

“I was able to pay the January mortgage because my daughter helped me, and my two sons. I’m blessed to have really nice kids,” she said.

“But people can only help so much, and I don’t know what to do next, I’m just confused, and I’m not sure why they’re not coming to a resolution.”

Benjamin works in the division of multifamily housing. But because their office is closed, HUD properties also cannot get monthly assistance payments for everyday expenses like utility bills and routine maintenance. Benjamin said she is the most concerned for elderly and disabled living in subsidized housing.

“It’s scary, not only for me, but for the communities that we work for,” she said.

"Hurting Hurricane Preparedness"

Also in Sunrise, hurricane specialist Eric Blake said it’s a lot worse for the government shutdown to happen in the off season. This is the time of year when he and his colleagues at the National Hurricane Center try to update hurricane models for next year.

“This is the time of year where people do their best work, and there’s no chance to do that now,” Blake said, who also spoke as the center’s union representative.

Blake is working without pay, but is only allowed to do essential, operational tasks. He said there are 10 hurricane specialists and about 50 people overall that work in the Florida International Universitycenter.

“We can’t do any hurricane preparedness work, outreach, or education,” he said.

Usually, Blake is hosting week-long FEMA hurricane preparedness classes in the offseason -- critical for emergency managers across the Gulf and East Coast.

“Right now I’m concerned that if we don’t have the normal 60 to 70 people who take this class, it could really hurt hurricane preparedness in the U.S.,” he said.

At home, Blake’s family can still rely on his wife’s paycheck. But if the shutdown continues into February, his wife’s salary can only pay the mortgage and not much else.

“This shutdown caught people by surprise. They incurred their normal Christmas bills, maybe they splurged. Then all of a sudden the shutdown hits them. And they weren’t expecting it,” he said.

“But there’s people at the hurricane center who can’t close on a home. There's people where both partners work at the hurricane center. Right now it’s a no-income household. So they’re really struggling.”

He also knows many early-career contractors that are furloughed and don't know how long they can hold out without a paycheck. But he said he wouldn’t blame them for leaving completely.

“There’s not that many people who have specialized hurricane skills out there, and these people are very valuable,” Blake said. “We try to get the best and brightest at the national hurricane center, and I’m not sure we’re going to be able to do this the longer the shutdown continues.”

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