Morale is Low for Longmont Air Traffic Controllers As Federal Government Shutdown Drags On
Morale at the Denver Air Route Traffic Control Center is low.
The majority of the 350 to 400 federal employees at the center in Longmont have been working without pay since the government shutdown on Dec. 22. Some have been furloughed and are at home with no pay.
Joshua Waggener, who has worked as an air traffic controller in Longmont for more than 12 years, said it doesn’t matter how much a federal worker has in savings.
“If you don’t know when the next paycheck is going to come, you still have to make adjustments in your day-to-day life,” Waggener said.
All workers have had to cut back to essentials, regardless of their savings cushion, he said.
Georgia Boys BBQ, a Longmont restaurant, plans to offer a free lunch Wednesday to help ease the stress of the shutdown for both the federal employees and the businesses that rely on them.
“Just on the personal side, I think it’s really unfair that they’re having to work and not getting paid for it,” said Nickolas Reckinger, the restaurant’s owner. “It’s hurting everybody. It’s hurting those employees personally, it’s hurting the cafe that’s set up (in the center) right now.”
Piling on the stress
The air traffic control center in Longmont directs air traffic for the airports in Denver, Colorado Springs and Pueblo, as well as airports as far north as Rapid City, N.D., according to Waggener, who also is the local president of Denver’s National Air Traffic Controllers Association and alternate regional vice president for the northwest mountain region of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association.
The majority of the time a plane is in the air, pilots are talking to a controller in a center, he said. Controllers ensure planes stay apart from each other and away from bad weather, among other things, he said.
The high stress of the job is only getting worse with the shutdown, Waggener said. Air traffic controllers now must not only worry about the task at hand, but also about the constant question in the back of their heads of when they’ll next get paid.
“It’s tangible, you can see it with the people you’re working with,” Waggener said. ”... That kind of stress is nothing that you want air traffic controllers to be dealing with, because you end up with lack of sleep, you end up with people taking second jobs.”
Georgia Boys BBQ served breakfast and lunch in the cafe inside the center from 2013 through 2016 and staff got to know the employees, Reckinger said, even catering retirements and kids’ graduations.
Reckinger said they’ve kept in touch with Yolk’n Around, a local food truck that operates the cafe now, and the owner said the business has lost 60 percent of its profits since the shutdown.
The restaurant is buying out the cafe on Wednesday to cover the cost of a normal lunch for Yolk’n Around, Reckinger said.
Free and discounted services from local businesses for federal workers
• Three credit unions — Elevations, Premier Members and Credit Union of Colorado — are offering loan deferments and short-term loans to furloughed employees .
• YWCA Boulder County is funding registration fees and other costs for furloughed workers who need drop-in child care at its Children’s Alley center, 2222 14th St., Boulder.
• A number of restaurants and businesses are offering discounts and free meals, including Walnut Cafe (3073 Walnut St. or 673 S. Broadway in Boulder), The Post Brewing Co. (all locations), Centro Mexican Kitchen (950 Pearl St., Boulder) and West End Tavern (926 Pearl St., Boulder).
• A number of businesses at Boulder Village Shopping Center (2525 Arapahoe Ave., Boulder) are offering deals, including Zolo Southwestern Grill, Kumon, Vero Boulder, CrossFit Sanitas, Le French Cafe, Brass Bed Fine Linens & Furnishings and Vitality Bowls.
• Boulder’s Colorado Driving Institute is offering free services to affected families.
“Generally, everybody’s bummed out at the FAA center,” he said. ”... We wanted to do something, and what we can do is BBQ really well.”
‘No one knows what’s going to happen’
About 20 percent of air traffic controllers are eligible to retire nationally, though in Longmont that number is lower at about 10 percent of the workforce, Waggener said. Across the board, however, staffing for air traffic control is at a 30-year low, he said.
While people have yet to resign, many employees are new and won’t be able to continue working without pay much longer, Waggener said.
A number of departments that support air traffic controllers also are closed, including quality control and quality assurance, training support and airport procedures, which he said should concern the public.
“The best analogy that I’ve found was when you have a surgeon who’s doing a surgery, they have an entire support team with them,” Waggener said. “Nobody would want to go through a surgery having a surgeon without a team.”
While the flying public might not always see long lines at the airport, and while their experience might seem “business as usual,” he said it’s not.
“Behind the scenes, what is happening is much different than your normal day-to-day air traffic control situation,” he said. “The longer this goes on, the longer we go without having the safety support that we usually have, no one knows what’s going to happen.”
Madeline St. Amour: 303-684-5212, email@example.com