ILWACO — As the partial government shutdown passes the 30-day mark, Coast Guard families around the U.S. are stuck in limbo. They’re not getting paid, but they still have to work.
At Station Cape Disappointment, the public servants who protect our coastlines are struggling to protect their own families from financial hardship and uncertainty during the longest shutdown in U.S history.
No one’s getting a check
During budget negotiations late last year, President Donald Trump asked for $5.7 billion to pay for a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. Negotiations fell apart when congress declined to fund the wall. The clock ran out, leading to a partial government shutdown starting on Dec. 22.
Nine large federal agencies and several smaller ones closed. About 800,000 federal workers have been affected. While some have been furloughed, others, including Coast Guard members, are being forced to work without pay.
The Coast Guard is a branch of the military, but it isn't funded like the others. The Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps fall under the jurisdiction of the Department of Defense, which remains fully funded during the shutdown. The Coast Guard is under the jurisdiction of the Department of Homeland Security, which is not funded.
Spouses speak up
While USCG members are not allowed to talk to the media, their family members have plenty to say.
“If you’re going somewhere every day but you’re not able to bring home a paycheck for your family, that’s a big kicker for morale,” said Cameron Harkin, 28, of Ilwaco. An Army veteran, Harkin is married to a member of the Coast Guard.
Due to a combination of careful financial planning, frugal living and Harkin’s military benefits, she and her spouse are getting by, she said. However, there isn’t money in their budget for anything unexpected. A couple of years ago, their apartment flooded. If something like that were to happen today, she said, they’d be in trouble.
Neighbors in need
“Our neighbors are not in the same situation,” Harkin said.
The Coast Guard managed to pay members on Jan. 1. But on Jan. 15, they didn’t get checks. That has been especially hard for people with children. Many members were already working second jobs before the shutdown, Harkin said. Some have been offered extra hours at their civilian jobs, but can’t work because they’re still expected to perform their Coast Guard duties. Others can’t work second jobs because they can’t afford childcare. Many families have had to use food banks and seek other forms of assistance, Harkin said, adding that her neighbors wanted express their gratitude to the local people and organizations that are helping them get through the shutdown.
“The outpouring of support has been absolutely phenomenal,” Harkin said. “I think we really have to thank everyone setting up those services for people who need them.”
Base without a budget
A USCG spokesman could not comment on how the shutdown is affecting workers, but read an official statement that said in part, “The Coast guard continues operations that provide for national security or protect life and property.” Harkin said there are signs of the shutdown all over base. “Non-essential” services and projects have been curtailed, many members are on a shortened work week, and some routine purchases and training sessions are on hold.
“Everybody is still working, they’re just doing it with super limited resources,” Harkin explained. Coasties have been instructed to save gas money by walking instead of driving official vehicles where possible, she said. Her spouse works in a maintenance unit that is scrounging for parts instead of purchasing new ones.
Pilots, rescue swimmers and others with strict training requirements aren’t getting in enough practice hours, which is keeping newer trainees from getting qualified. That may put an increasing burden on those who are qualified if the shutdown drags on, Harkin said. For example, pilots have mandatory rest periods after a certain number of hours of flying. If a major incident were to occur, the Coast Guard might struggle to find enough qualified people who haven’t maxed out their hours, she said.
‘Not bargaining chips’
When she spoke to the Observer on Jan. 18, Harkin pointed out the irony of the Coasties’ predicament: the very people charged with enforcing U.S. immigration laws at sea are casualties of the president’s plan for enforcing immigration laws.
Harkin had just finished writing letters to the Peninsula’s leaders in Washington, D.C., Republican Congresswoman Jaime Herrera Beutler and Democratic senators Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray. She urged them to get federal public servants back to work.
“We’re not bargaining chips,” Harkin said. “I personally don’t care for the wall, but that shouldn’t be part of the conversation.”
NOTE: Story corrected to clarify that the U.S. Coast Guard is a branch of the military but isn't funded as one.