Longmont-Boulder Area Federal Workers Apprehensive of Deal to Temporarily Open Government

January 26, 2019

Federal government workers in Boulder County are happy the government is poised open again, but apprehensive of what’s to come in three weeks.

U.S. President Donald Trump Friday afternoon agreed to temporarily reopen the federal government after a shutdown of 35 days, the longest shutdown in the country’s history, left workers struggling to pay bills with no clear end in sight.

While federal workers who were furloughed or working without pay will receive back pay, Trump in taped remarks made outside the White House, said another shutdown is possible if lawmakers can’t agree on funding for a border wall by Feb. 15.

Air traffic controllers at the Denver Air Route Traffic Control Center in Longmont have mixed feelings about the president’s announcement, said Joshua Waggener, the president of Denver’s chapter of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association and alternate regional vice president for the northwest mountain region of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association.

“Yes, we’re happy we’ve got our paychecks,” Waggener said. ”... We’re kind of a little apprehensive about the comments that have already been made, about if we don’t negotiate a wall in the next three weeks, the shutdown will happen again.”

‘If it happens again ...’

Several people have speculated that the flight cancellations and delays experienced Friday morning due to staffing shortages are what spurred the president and lawmakers to reopen the government.

Paul Rinaldi, president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, issued a statement saying it doesn’t condone coordinated activities that would negatively effect the capacity of the National Airspace System.

But, Rinaldi continued “we have warned about what could happen as a result of the prolonged shutdown. Many controllers have reached the breaking point of exhaustion, stress, and worry caused by this shutdown.”

He goes on to say air traffic controllers are required to report “fit for duty to every shift,” meaning if they are overly stressed or burnt out they may not be fit for duty.

When combined with the lowest staffing levels in 30 years, it seemed inevitable the industry would begin experiencing shortages that would affect travel.

Waggener, who also is an air traffic controller at the center in Longmont, said he believes people will be “hypersensitive” to a second shutdown, should it happen.

“I think, in the beginning of this, nobody expected it to go this long. So I think people probably just went along, business as usual for a while,” he said.

“If it happens again, I think that people will definitely buckle down from the very beginning.”

‘It takes years to catch up’

In the meantime, the shutdown has already had long-ranging impacts on a number of local federal institutions.

Ken Kroenlein, a supervisor and mechanical engineer at the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Boulder, is facing deadlines for his research project that weren’t extended in light of the shutdown. Kroenlein said he also was working to create partnerships for research and funding purposes, but the month-long lapse in communication and progress most likely means those partners have moved on.

“This is going to seriously impact the research that NIST is capable of doing,” he said.

Kroenlein said he also was trying to recruit people who have now decided working for the government isn’t worth the risk.

“There are young Ph.D.s who aren’t going to be federal researchers because of this,” he said.

Within the Federal Aviation Administration, things look even more dire. According to Waggener, the ripple affect of the shutdown will be “huge” for hiring.

The industry staffing level for air traffic controllers is already at a 30-year-low, and the administration has failed to meet its annual hiring goal the past two years, Waggener said. The goal is based on the number of people who can get through the FAA Academy in Oklahoma each year.

The academy closed during the shutdown, which Waggener said means the administration automatically began to miss its goal.

“It takes years to catch up from having that shutdown for just one month,” he said.

On top of that, it is unclear if the academy will open for the three-week interim that could end with another shutdown. The same discussion is happening for modernization projects that were paused during the shutdown, he added.

Waggener said the shutdown also could affect people’s decisions to work for the federal government. While people used to think federal jobs were more stable with decent benefits and pensions, the shutdown has some rethinking that opinion, he said.

“Anybody that’s been close enough to see the impacts that this has had on people, I think that you would definitely think twice,” Waggener said.

Madeline St. Amour: 303-684-5212, mstamour@prairiemountainmedia.com

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