LIHUE — A food drop organized by labor unions and the Hawaii Foodbank distributed bags of food Thursday afternoon to nearly a hundred federal employees who have been working for weeks without pay.
“After February, I’m in trouble,” Christian Ogawa said.
In his 12 years as a Transportation Security Agency screener at Lihue Airport, Ogawa has managed to set aside a small amount of savings, but as the shutdown nears the end of its seventh week, his financial buffer is rapidly eroding.
With the help of family and the community, Ogawa said he hasn’t had to worry about going hungry. But if the shutdown continues beyond the first of next month, he may quickly find himself in a serious financial bind.
Ogawa estimates he has another week left until his money runs out completely. Already he is thinking about taking out a loan, a step he is reluctant to take knowing he will be responsible for paying back the interest when his back pay comes at the end of the shutdown.
“For me it feels like kind of immoral, where you’re making me work but you’re not compensating me,” he said. “I feel like they don’t value me as a worker.”
On day 34 of the government shutdown, a coalition of labor-union leaders and volunteers met at the Hawaii Government Employees Association’s office in Lihue. By the end of the afternoon, they handed out packs of ramen noodles and 90 grocery sacks filled with canned goods and cereal to people who came with federal identification cards.
Debra Ventura said she and two other HGEA members took the day off from their regular jobs to support the federal workers by volunteering at Thursday’s food drop.
“We all took vacation because we realize the importance,” she said.
Financially-strapped government employees came to the HGEA office wearing badges from several different federal agencies. Transportation Security Administration airport screeners were joined by inspectors from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, technicians with the Federal Aviation Administration and members of the U.S. Coast Guard.
The steady stream of government workers flowing in and out of the parking lot through the early afternoon described varying degrees of financial distress.
TSA officers — among the lowest-paid federal employees — made up the majority of workers who sought assistance at Thursday’s food drop.
Jennifer Bartolome has been with the TSA for about two years and said she makes somewhere around $45,000 a year — close to the average for TSA screeners in Hawaii.
Already, Bartolome said she has been forced to borrow money to cover expenses and is worried about how the loan will affect her credit as the shutdown drags on.
Bartolome also expressed frustration at the prospect of paying interest on money she never wanted to borrow.
“It’s not my fault I’m not getting paid,” she said.
A USDA employee showed up carrying a stack of photocopied ID cards. She picked up 10 bags of food — one for herself, and nine for coworkers who couldn’t come “because they had to work.”
The woman declined to give her name, concerned that she could lose her job for talking to the press, but said that, for her, a big part of the frustration stems from knowing the problem is beyond her control.
“It’s terrible to feel powerless,” she said. “We can’t strike. We can’t go on unemployment. We can’t get a new job.” She shrugged and looked at the ground.
Two TSA officers in blue uniforms drove into the parking lot a few minutes later. When asked if they just came from work, one responded, “We’re still at work. This is our lunch break.”
They were followed shortly by a handful of Federal Aviation Administration employees, who piled out of a truck to pick up their bags of food. They also declined to give their names but said they’re doing OK, at least for now.
“Give me about March,” one said. “I’ll have some sad stories.”
In a press release Thursday, the HGEA said the financial strain of the government shutdown has gotten so bad, one worker is sleeping in a car to be closer to work because there is no money for gas.
“The government shut down has got to end,” said HGEA Executive Director Randy Perreira in the statement. “The effect to the workers is real and devastating and the ripple effect of shutting down government service will have long and unanticipated consequences. We are talking about people’s lives, their livelihoods, their families, their credit scores, and so much more.”
Caleb Loehrer, staff writer, can be reached at 245-0441 or firstname.lastname@example.org.