NEW LONDON, Conn. ― As President Donald Trump and Congress continue to butt heads over the government shutdown, thousands of U.S. Coast Guard members and their families have been caught in the crossfire.
In few places is the strain more evident than New London, Connecticut ― an official “Coast Guard City” where cadets and enlisted members play a central role in the identity of this seaside community.
The Coast Guard Academy, based in New London since 1910, has seen at least 160 of its civilian faculty and staff furloughed since the partial government shutdown began Dec. 22. About 100 civilians whose duties have been deemed essential continue to work without pay. The Coast Guard reportedly has about 2,000 members in Connecticut working without pay, performing such duties as patrolling the state’s coastline from New York to Rhode Island.
And it’s not just the academy’s employees who are feeling the heat. The roughly 1,000 cadets enrolled at the school aren’t receiving their bi-weekly stipends during the shutdown, though they are still provided free food in the mess hall.
On Tuesday, some 42,000 Coast Guard members missed paychecks for the first time since the shutdown began nearly four weeks ago. Like the rest of the 800,000 federal employees furloughed or working without pay, Coast Guard members will receive back pay once the government reopens.
But the uncertainty of when their next paycheck will arrive, and worries about paying bills and affording necessities in the meantime have driven anxiety levels through the roof for some Coast Guard servicemen and servicewomen.
Jackie Ramirez, a Coast Guard Academy instructor of four years, has been forced to rely on assistance from a pop-up food pantry that appeared on campus in the wake of the shutdown.
Organized by the Southeastern Connecticut chapter of the U.S. Coast Guard Chief Petty Officers Association, the makeshift food pantry has been assisting Coast Guard members struggling to make ends meet during what has become the longest government shutdown in U.S. history.
“This is a new experience for me,” Ramirez said of the food pantry. “It gives me that comfort in case that next paycheck doesn’t come. … Thank goodness for all this. I walked in and almost started crying.”
Ramirez’s husband does not work in the Coast Guard and his pay is unaffected by the shutdown. But both of their incomes are needed to pay their mortgage, she said.
“I have enough savings for a couple months,” Ramirez said. “It gives me anxiety to have to dip back into that. … It hurts. But I just keep going day by day.”
The Coast Guard is the only military branch going without pay during the shutdown. Unlike the Army, Navy, Marines and Air Force, which are part of the Defense Department, the Coast Guard is part of the Department of Homeland Security ― one of the federal agencies impacted by the partial shutdown.
Hundreds of Coast Guard members are deployed overseas, carrying out their missions alongside other military service members who are receiving paychecks.
“It’s really one of the many outrages of this shutdown,” Rep. Joe Courtney (D-Conn.), whose district includes New London, told HuffPost on Wednesday. “Just watching this unfold turns my stomach.”
Courtney is a co-sponsor of the Pay Our Coast Guard Parity Act, introduced in the House on Jan. 8. The legislation would guarantee pay for Coast Guard members during government shutdowns. A similar bill was introduced in the Senate on Jan. 3. But neither the House nor the Senate have voted on the legislation.
“We really need to take a long hard look at the way the budget process is,” Courtney said. “It’s hurting people who are totally unrelated to the issues Congress is squabbling over.”
Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), another co-sponsor of the bill, urged Trump to signal support for the legislation.
“He has not, and that speaks volumes,” DeLauro told HuffPost in a statement. “It is long past time he end this shutdown for the good of the American people ― especially our men and women in uniform.”
Coast Guard members are scheduled to receive their next paychecks on Feb. 1, but there appears no end in sight for the shutdown. Trump has vowed to veto a spending bill that would reopen all federal agencies if it doesn’t provide $5 billion for his long-promised wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. Democrats have vehemently rejected the demand, calling the wall ineffective and immoral.
Katie Walvatne, president of the Southeastern Connecticut U.S. Coast Guard Spouses’ Association, and her husband, a Coast Guard mechanic, are considering applying for grants through the American Legion and CT Military Department in case the shutdown lingers.
“It’s a lot of anxiety, a lot of stress,” Walvatne said. “The not knowing when is a kind of a lot of tension put on our family.”
Walvatne works two part-time jobs, which helps keep things “normal” for her 4-year-old daughter while her husband is without pay. Still, they’ve had to rely on the food pantry, so they can put all their income toward gas and other bills.
“We’ve all just been pulling together and doing what we can to provide,” Walvatne said. “We shouldn’t be having to worry about making payments on bills. We shouldn’t have to be calling our creditors and explaining that we have no money to pay them. We shouldn’t be worried about groceries and gas money to get to work and to doctor’s appointments.”
Wade Hinkley, who is set to retire next month after two decades of active service in the Coast Guard, stopped by the food pantry with his wife Dawn on Thursday to grab some essentials.
“It’s a definite slap in the face,” Hinkley said of going without pay. “If you’re living paycheck to paycheck and you don’t get that paycheck, it’s a sting. If you don’t get that paycheck, you have to find a way to provide for your family.”
The Hinkleys said they’re worried how much they will have to dig into their retirement savings if the shutdown continues.
“I never expected this,” Dawn Hinkley said. “Never, ever.”
As Coast Guard members tighten their belts, local businesses are beginning to feel the costly ripple effects. Fazly Rabbi, owner of New London pizza shop and bar Slice, said business has been way down since the shutdown began.
Slice has been a go-to hangout for Coast Guard cadets for over a decade ― and it shows: The walls near the bar are plastered with dollar bills signed by various cadets. Above the register hangs a colorful, Coast Guard-themed sign handcrafted by a few regulars.
“We’re 100-percent dependent on the Coast Guard,” Rabbi said. “I love those kids. They’re the best customers. They’re disciplined. I’ve never had a problem.”
Fridays and Saturdays are typically busy nights for Slice. But Rabbi worries this weekend will be another slow one, with cadets cutting back on going out during the budget impasse.
“There’s no reason the government should be shut down right now,” he said. “They should work together.”
Across the street, Mr. G’s Restaurant is also feeling the slow burn of the shutdown. This month’s sales are noticeably down compared with this time last year, according to owner Peter Farnan.
“Coast Guard is kind of our bread and butter,” Farnan said. “They’re a big part of our business.”
The 52-year-old family-run restaurant is offering a 10-percent discount to Coast Guard members during the shutdown to recognize their historic patronage and help them as much as possible, Farnan said.
“Everyone seems to be in good spirits, but I think that will change pretty soon,” he said. “It’s not just affecting them and us, it’s affecting the whole local economy. I think it’s really going to start to get worse as time progresses and this doesn’t get resolved.”
The Navy Federal Credit Union at the Coast Guard Academy has seen a significant rise in customers who are federal workers seeking short-term loans and advice on how to handle their finances during the shutdown, branch manager Kim Smith said.
Despite the mounting stress, Katie Walvatne said she feels optimistic about the future ― and overwhelmed by the outpouring of support from within the Coast Guard and beyond.
“We are like a family,” she said. “We’re kind of taking care of each other and the community is taking care of us, and that’s really helped a lot. … We’re all in the same boat.”
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