STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Now, Congress has until the end of Friday to figure out some way to fund the Department of Homeland Security, otherwise the department shuts down. But let's define just what a shutdown means in this case. The vast majority of DHS employees would actually have to keep showing up for work. They just wouldn't be seeing paychecks until lawmakers find a way out of their problems. Transportation security officers tell NPR's Ailsa Chang that's a bad memory being replayed too soon.
AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: There's a theory some Republicans are working under as we enter this homestretch of the Homeland Security funding fight and that is a shutdown of the department is just not a big deal. Americans won't even notice because under federal guidelines most DHS employees are so essential to the safety of human life and property they will be required to work even during a shutdown. Here's Congressman Matt Salmon of Arizona.
CONGRESSMAN MATT SALMON: Look at the last shutdown. I think 85-90 percent of all of the DHS workers were declared essential and came to work. And they all got their paychecks.
CHANG: Correction - they did get their paychecks, but not until after the government shutdown in October 2013 ended. So for Francis Hamilton, that meant waiting almost one month before getting paid again. He's a transportation security officer I found standing near the security checkpoint at Washington's Reagan national Airport.
FRANCIS HAMILTON: It hurt. It really did. I had to stretch with, like, maybe about no more than about $300 left.
CHANG: In your bank account.
HAMILTON: Yep, and that was without getting the paycheck until later.
CHANG: Hamilton remembers stocking up at the grocery store as cheaply as he could.
HAMILTON: I bought some bread, maybe, like, a box of juice and, like, a few frozen meats, but that was about it. Spent, like, maybe a total of $50, so that way, the rest of the money - if there was an emergency, like for gas, anything else - I had to make it stretch. I had no choice.
CHANG: Officers like Hamilton make about $35,000 a year. And now the question on a lot of his colleagues' minds is - seriously, we're doing this again? Here's Hamilton's supervisor, Fred Williams.
FRED WILLIAMS: It is just the same movie all over again. That's what it is, so we'll just ride out the storm and see what happens.
CHANG: Out of the nearly 230,000 DHS employees, 200,000 are considered essential. So security checkpoints in the 450 airports across the U.S. will operate as normal.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Do you think my boots will go off or do I...
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: No, that's fine.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: This is not gate 23, is it?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: No, it's not.
CHANG: It's not just TSA that'll get hauled into work during a shutdown. Most of border patrol, immigration and customs enforcement, the Secret Service and the U.S. Coast Guard will be called in too and not get paid. For those living paycheck to paycheck, that could mean trying to get a loan from a credit union. But Stacy Bodtmann says she signed up for none of this.
STACY BODTMANN: But if I'm not being paid, Stacy won't be at Newark Airport.
CHANG: Bodtmann's an active member in TSA's union. She's been a transportation security officer for 13 years at Newark International.
BODTMANN: I mean, we're in America. Nobody works for free.
CHANG: DHS officials say if an essential employee fails to show up, she would be considered AWOL and could be disciplined.
BODTMANN: I'm sure I'll win that case in front of an arbitrator, so, by all means, bring it on.
CHANG: Bodtmann and some other union members were lobbying Capitol Hill earlier this month - not about the shutdown, but about changing the TSA pay scale. To be honest, Bodtmann says, any possible shutdown is low on the list of troubles for an agency that has serious morale problems right now. But she says this standoff in Congress - simply to make political points about the president's executive action on immigration - just seems so pointless.
BODTMANN: Cut out all the [expletive] and the smiles and the handshakes and let's just get down to business and get it over with. That's how it would be handled in New Jersey.
CHANG: Maybe if lawmakers were forced to go to work and not get paid, she says, they'd figure a way out a lot sooner. Ailsa Chang, NPR News, Washington.
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