V.I. Federal Employees Describe Hurdles They Hit During Shutdown

A TSA agent monitors the X-ray machine in a security line. (DHS photo)
A TSA agent monitors the X-ray machine in a security line. (DHS photo)

Virgin Islands members of the American Federation of Government Employees have been pleading for help from local utilities and businesses with little response, said one union representative, pushing them to call on the local government to take up their cause.

“I had an employee telling me today that she stopped sending her child to school due to the fact that she couldn’t afford her child’s tuition,” shared federal worker Tiana Brown, who declined to disclose the agency that employs her. “So it’s kind of like, do I use the money that I have to pay daycare? Do I use the money that I have to pay WAPA? To put gas in my car or to buy food for my family?”

Brown, a federal employee for the last six years, said she speaks for roughly 110 St. Thomas and St. Croix members of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 557, most of them working for the Transportation Security Administration. The San Juan-based chapter of the national union is in charge of labor relations for about 400 chapter members residing in St. Thomas, St. Croix, Aguadilla, Ponce and San Juan, representing them in grievances and disputes.

In 2013, Brown said, the national union filed a class action lawsuit against the Obama administration because of the shutdown, and filed the same type of lawsuit on day-two of the latest Trump administration shutdown.

On Friday, the Trump administration announced it had reached a deal with Congress to reopen the government and fund some federal agencies until Feb. 15 while negotiations continue over the border wall funding. The Washington Post reported, however, that federal employees owed backpay may not see those funds in their accounts until late this week, which means Brown and her fellow employees may need to survive a few more days without pay.

On Sunday, acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney also hinted that another shutdown is still on the table. Mulvaney told CBS’ “Face the Nation” that President Donald Trump is willing to enter into another shutdown in Feb. 15 if his demands for border wall funding are not met.

Brown, a single mother of two boys, said this was not not her first shutdown but she admitted she was not prepared for the 35-day stalemate that froze the government in the longest shutdown in U.S. history. While the Trump administration had two previous shutdowns, they only lasted a few days, said Brown, and did not cause much worry among employees.

Brown started worrying when the time for the first shutdown paycheck drew near.

“The thing is, [Trump] had has a couple of shutdowns, and it was only two to three days. So to say that I was preparing myself – no, I wasn’t prepared,” Brown said.

“It was only after I saw that we didn’t make that deadline for payroll, I said, well, OK. Now I really gotta get myself together, and try to conserve and try to make sure that I’m using the funds that I have available and using it for the right things,” she said.

As an organization, the local AFGE chapter cannot solicit help, Brown said, but individual members can and have appealed to local entities. According to Brown, as soon as they missed their first paycheck, her fellow employees began reaching out to local utilities, particularly the Virgin Islands Water and Power Authority.

“It was just as simple as taking into consideration that we’re not able to pay right now,” said Brown. “Can we pay at a later date? Can we get a lower bill? Can we not be charged late fees, not be disconnected?”

On Friday afternoon, WAPA Spokesperson Jean Greaux said WAPA’s customer service department only had one inquiry on St. Croix from a federal employee seeking assistance.

“There was no direct request for assistance. It was just an inquiry if something of the sort would be available to them. That’s the extent of any involvement or any questions or any inquiries we have received from any employees affected by the shutdown,” said Greaux.

Brown, however, said that none of the federal employees in her group who reached out to WAPA received any type of response, and they fear the consequences if they fail to pay their utility bills.

“If the request is not granted … your lights will be cut and you would either have to try to make do, try to go back how we were living during Irma and Maria and that was not good,” said Brown.

Individual union members also reached out to banks, said Brown, after seeing other states’ local banks and other financial groups offering different loans for federal employees, as long as they sign an agreement that the loan would be paid when the employees receive their backpay. Their members also inquired about deferred payments for mortgages and credit card balances. While some members reported that they succeeded in getting aid in that area, Brown said it seemed that banks were being selective in the individuals they accommodated.

“One of my fellow co-workers called Banco Popular,” Brown said. “And the bank said they can only offer regular personal loans, and there is no guarantee the federal employees would be approved. So pretty much try your luck.”

According to Brown, one individual spoke to three employees of Banco Popular, but was given the same response: she can try her luck by applying for personal loans with no guarantees of approval.

Brown stressed that, unlike many TSA officers across the country who have either called out sick or quit their jobs in search of new employment, members of the local AFGE chapter continue to go to work, something she said she is proud of.

“Here, we are going strong. We’re doing what we have to do, and we’re getting it done even though we’re not getting paid,” said Brown. “We’re ensuring that we have the same level of screenings, same level of security.”

Delegate to Congress Stacey Plaskett has been vocally advocating for federal employees affected by the shutdown in the territory, bringing their stories to Washington and sharing them on the House floor. Brown said on Sunday her church, Love of Christ Fellowship, “blessed all the federal employees who are [church] members.”

Over the weekend, various organizations, including Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, also set up food drives across the territory, something Brown encourages and that her fellow union members would take advantage of, she said.

“Yes, some of us may have savings, but it’s only so long your savings can last,” she said. “And someone like myself who may have a young infant, who has a baby, formula is expensive. If someone is giving formula out, I will take advantage of it. I will.”

But Brown and her fellow members said they need to see more from the local government. She would like to see the governor mediating with WAPA, she said, perhaps asking for leniency on late fees and disconnections. Brown, who is still waiting for her 2016 and 2017 tax refunds, said even one tax check would have helped them bridge the income gap.