September 15, 2019
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‘I don’t know who I can put off’: Stress mounts for Coast Guard families working without pay

Ashley L. Conti | BDN
Ashley L. Conti | BDN
A 47-foot boat is seen at the United States Coast Guard station in Rockland in this March 10, 2017, file photo.

The coffee pot broke. The car needed an oil change. The credit card bill, fat from Christmas spending, had to be paid down.

On an ordinary day, none of this would have posed a problem for a U.S. Coast Guard family living in Belfast. But it happened on Monday, the 24th day of the partial government shutdown, and the day that the biweekly federal paycheck should have been deposited into their bank account but wasn’t.

Everything feels stressful, said Heidi, the wife of a longtime Coast Guardsman and the stay-at-home mother of three children. The BDN is not including her last name because she fears retribution against her husband if he is identified.

After the shutdown ends, her husband should receive back pay, but that doesn’t help them right now, she said.

“Several people have offered help,” Heidi said. “But to be in this position in our lives and have to ask for money, I feel like it hits your dignity.”

The shutdown, now the longest in U.S. history, is affecting about 800,000 federal employees. Among those affected are Transportation Safety Administration personnel, National Park Service workers and members of the U.S. Coast Guard, the only military branch that does not receive pay during shutdowns.

Because the Coast Guard is part of the Department of Homeland Security, not the Department of Defense, its nearly 42,000 active-duty members who are considered essential must work without knowing when they will next be paid.

Andrew Barresi, a public information officer with the U.S. Coast Guard, said last week that nearly 600 active-duty, reserve and civilian personnel work for the Coast Guard in Sector Northern New England. The majority of those are stationed in Maine, which has Coast Guard facilities in South Portland, Boothbay, Rockland, Belfast, Southwest Harbor, Jonesport and Eastport.

Although most of the reserve and civilian personnel have been furloughed during the shutdown, those in uniform are continuing to perform operations that provide for national security or that protect life and property, Barresi said.

Heidi has written emails to all of Maine’s congressional delegation, asking them to find a way to reopen the government and telling them that the shutdown is putting families like hers in a hard position.

“I do not support that wall,” she said. “And it’s not fair to hold everyone hostage.”

‘Not forgotten’

On Sunday night, Adm. Karl Schultz, the commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard, wrote on Facebook that the financial plight of the men and women serving in the military branch, and their families, is not being taken lightly.

“While our Coast Guard workforce is deployed, there are loved ones at home reviewing family finances, researching how to get support, and weighing childcare options — they are holding down the fort,” he wrote. “You have not, and will not, be forgotten.”

Still, people like Heidi are grappling with the problem of how to balance their budgets without a paycheck. Her husband has served in the Coast Guard for more than 20 years, she said, and although the government has been shut down numerous times in that span, this is the first time he has ever missed a paycheck.

For her family, the financial trouble is perhaps compounded by the fact that they are renting their house from a furloughed federal employee. Also, they own a house in Oregon that they rent to a furloughed Coast Guard civilian.

“We’re all in this huge bind,” she said. “If we don’t get rent, there’s no way we can come up with enough money in a month to pay for the mortgage and our own rent.”

She has been calling creditors to let them know the family’s situation, and asked USAA, the military-affiliated bank that provides their credit card, if they could push the due date on their bill back a month. Normally, they pay off the whole balance every month, but after the holidays, they were left with a huge credit card bill.

USAA turned her down.

“I don’t know who I can put off,” Heidi said. “Do we not pay rent, or school tuition, or music lessons, or the cellphone bill?”

She also feels hamstrung because her husband cannot seek other employment without getting it approved by his command. And when Heidi saw that the Coast Guard had initially posted tips for weathering the shutdown that included suggestions to hold a garage sale, seek babysitting jobs and barter carpentry to landlords instead of paying rent, she thought it was ridiculous.

“They suggested we dip into our IRAs to pay for this. That was their good advice, which of course is not good advice,” she said, adding that one of the hardest parts is not knowing how long this will last.

Local help

Some Maine communities and food pantries are trying to ease the financial pain of Coast Guard and other federal employees who are not receiving paychecks during the shutdown. In Rockland, a designated Coast Guard City, local officials have reached out to people assigned to the city’s Coast Guard station to offer help.

Rockland City Manager Tom Luttrell said Monday that the efforts have not gone unnoticed.

“We have had great response from both the citizens of Rockland and the Coast Guard families that live in Rockland,” he wrote in an email. “We have had a few residents come in and donate to our heating assistance fund and actually had two Coast Guard families come in today and seek heating assistance.”

Jenny Jones, executive director of the Bar Harbor Food Pantry, said she expects the shutdown to lead to more need for food assistance. There is a Coast Guard station in Southwest Harbor, and many furloughed National Park Service employees also live in the area.

She knows it may not be easy for men and women who are used to helping others be put in the uncomfortable position of having to ask for help.

“We definitely are making a special effort to get the word out that we’re there,” she said, adding that the pantry serves people who live throughout Hancock County. “The reason food assistance programs exist is because life happens. … We want them to come and eat good food and have access to nutrition in this hard time. This is not anybody’s fault.”

 



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