Before Corey Soignet had hundreds of lives in his hands, hour after hour, in the airspace above Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport, he spent years guiding military aircraft. He had joined the Air National Guard with an eye toward becoming a pilot, but he found being an air traffic controller such meaningful work that he made it his career.
He’s learned the “hyperfocus” needed to help guide aircraft through night skies and brutal storms.
On Thursday, Soignet — with 22 years of experience working for the military and Federal Aviation Administration — got a look at his wages for the past two weeks of work helping keep U.S. skies and travelers safe. His net pay? $0.00.
As one of the hundreds of thousands of federal employees working without pay during the government shutdown, Soignet knew it was coming, but it was jarring nonetheless.
“In all that public service, this is the first time I’ve received a pay stub with zero on it for work completed,” Soignet said. And there’s no sign of when that will change.
“Now I don’t know how much I can put toward that credit card. Do I pay half my water bill? Do I have enough money for 30 days or 60 days or six months? You can’t ask people to budget like that.”
It was an experience shared by air traffic controllers across the country, who visited employeeexpress.gov to find their latest payroll updates. There, along with the mundane health and withholding information on their Department of Transportation Earnings and Leave Statement is a small box with the words “Net Pay” highlighted in blue.
And under it: “$0.00.″
Most federal employees are paid every two weeks. This is the first payday without a check for air traffic controllers.
More than 24,000 FAA employees are working without pay, since their positions are considered vital for “life and safety.” Another more than 17,000 have been furloughed, told to stop doing their jobs, including the vital training work to bring air traffic controllers into the workforce after years of retirements have thinned the ranks.
Air traffic controllers describe an extraordinary pride in their work, tied to the stakes of what they do. Soignet says he thinks of his family flying. “It has to be the right decision at the right time. If it’s a bad decision, the risks are tremendous,” he says.
So when he puts on his headphones, even after the deeply discouraging image of an earnings statement without earnings, he said he will not let his mind wander to questions about cash.
But it will haunt his crucial rebuilding time when he’s home, he said. “You’re taking that time you can decompress and now there’s another external factor: When am I going to get paid?” Soignet said.
“It puts a tremendous amount of stress in a system that doesn’t need any more stress,” Andrew LeBovidge, a regional vice president with the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, said.
Soignet, who also serves in the controllers union, said there are many federal employees who are worse off than his family, since his wife’s income will help cushion them for some time.
But he thinks of the single-parent controllers who live on one now-absent income, or the Transportation Security Administration workers at the airport he saw on his way to press the controllers case in Washington. Many of those TSA employees earn less than air traffic controllers but also must still work, he said.
He’s put money aside for years. But with spending on a relocation, medical bills and life expenses, “I don’t have savings for six months of my income,” Soignet said.
With President Donald Trump insisting on billions of dollars for a border wall, and top congressional Democrats voting to reopen the government without it, Washington remains at an impasse.
Soignet would not publicly take a position on that question, or say who he thinks deserves blame.
“When it comes to border security, it’s a discussion that needs to be had. But federal employees shouldn’t be used as a bargaining chip,” he said.