On day 35 of the government shutdown, TSA agents at John F. Kennedy airport were prompt for work on what was supposed to be pay-day. Their uniforms were neat and to professional standards listed in the TSA uniform policy. Despite the thick fog of unspoken truth gathered in Terminal 4, they were pleasant as they greeted travelers. That truth is, while everything seemed copacetic, TSA agents hadn’t been paid in weeks. For the average person, who lives paycheck to paycheck, it was a nightmare.
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On December 22, President Trump and congress failed to reach an agreement on the allocation of federal funds to support Trump’s $5 billion request to fund the Mexican border wall. 380,000 non-critical employees were sent home without pay. More than 420,000 critical employees across numerous government agencies worked without pay during the shutdown. Among them were 53,000 Transportation Security Administration agents.
Black women TSA agents were particularly affected by the government shutdown. Black women have long carried the burden of single parenthood and in the midst of no paychecks, had to make ends meet by any means. In spite of Trump’s disconnected assertion that workers were happy to give up their checks, to support his dream wall, many workers didn’t have savings accounts. Rent is due on the first of the month and growls from the stomachs of their children could push anyone past their breaking point.
“Come next week, I don’t know how I’m going to put food on my table,” said Marcia London, a TSA agent and single mother of two kids. “One of my coworkers yesterday, she said, ‘I don’t know how much money Trump thinks my bank account has’ And then they told us yesterday on the news that one of the, the congress people said, well, I don’t know why they’re upset that they’re not getting a paycheck. ‘It’s only two paychecks.’ You make those six figures. We don’t, we’re barely scraping by. Like, why are we going to food pantries? Because we need it.”
Two weeks prior, workers received a $500 “gift,” which for most, came and went in the matter of seconds. Bills don’t stop.
“I didn’t even see that money. It went straight to my loan.” To make it, Marcia said she “penny pinched.” The choice between breakfast, lunch and dinner became a daily decision. “I make sure there is gas in the car, food. I’ll say, ‘Am I going to eat breakfast this morning? I’m going to eat lunch. Maybe. You know what? I’ll skip that. Maybe drink a tea or something to get by.”
Restaurants like Camden Food provided free meals for TSA agents. Wives of managers prepared dishes for employees and other co-workers chipped in for potlucks.
“At the end of the day these people haven’t been getting a paycheck for almost five weeks. So as a company as a whole, they actually provide breakfast and nice warm breakfast and a nice, a warm lunch as well and fully breakfast and lunch. I don’t want to specifically what we served or,” said Lisa Morgan, manager of Camden Foods.
“I actually had customers buy bagels, muffins and sending upstairs to them because they just happy that people come to work so they can make their flights at the end of the day because these people will work without pay, so I believe in not everyone in the morale has been pretty good considering what’s going on with them, but everyone says they’ve been pretty grateful. They’re appreciative.”
A gate agent, who wasn’t directly effected by the shutdown spoke of her friend in dire financial need because she pays for her mother’s hospice care.
“She hasn’t been able to pay and they’re threatening to kick her out,” Marcia revealed. “I spoke to her like last week Friday and she was just breaking down, ‘Like what am I supposed to do?’ And I’m like, ‘Just explain it to them.’ She said, ‘They don’t care.”
President Trump announced the end of the shutdown later that day. “We have reached a deal to end the shutdown and reopen the federal government,” he declared in a press conference. But the damage was already done. The shutdown cost the U.S. economy $11 Billion “due to lost output from federal workers, delayed government spending and reduced demand” according to Forbes.
The shutdown may have ended, but the threat of another in three weeks looms. Nor will it erase the personal damage done to the average worker’s finances. But one thing remains the same, the resilience of the Black woman.
“I just said, OK, ‘God is going to take control.’ In the beginning, I was very upset and it was overwhelming, but I said, you know what? I can’t stress over something that is out of my control, out of my hands. There’s nothing that I can do, so I’m just hoping that this ends.”