For the 1,200 federal employees at NASA Ames, the full brunt of the federal shutdown is hitting home this week.
Friday is payday – or more precisely, it would have been payday if not for the mandatory furloughs for its non-essential federal workers. For the first time since the partial government shutdown last month, the civil servants at Ames are missing out on their usual paycheck, and that spells bad news for NASA's talent pool.
Employees must now pay their mortgages, student loans or routine bills without their usual income streams. And those debts will quickly start compounding, said Janette Rocha, a NASA accountant who also serves as chief steward for the Ames Federal Employee Union.
Describing her own situation, Rocha said she is the main provider for her family, which includes two grandchildren with special needs, and her husband, who can't work due to a pulmonary disease. But financially, she counts herself fortunate when she compares her hardships to those faced by some of her colleagues.
"We have workers who can't feed their kids, and it could be a month or two months before we get paid," Rocha she. "We're being held hostage for a border wall that won't work."
The federal shutdown began on Dec. 21 due to a political impasse over a spending bill to fund most government operations. President Donald Trump has refused to sign the bill because he insists it must include $5.7 billion for a wall on the Mexico border.
On Jan. 10, the Ames union set up a temporary relief station in a hotel room near Moffett Field. Through the day, furloughed workers streamed in to pick up $100 checks to help pay for groceries, gas or other expenses. Essentially, the union was returning to employees some of their dues. It wasn't much, but every little bit helped, Rocha said.
For members who need extra help, the union had also organized a no-interest loan program through the Menlo Survey Credit Union. Other organizations, including the Community Services Agency, are urging federal employees who are struggling to sign up for social services, including free groceries or rental assistance.
The San Mateo County Human Services Agency announced on Twitter Jan. 11 that food resources are available for furloughed workers in need. People needing food assistance are encouraged to call Second Harvest Food Bank at 800-984-3663 to access local food banks or visit their nearest core services agency. In south San Mateo County, the two nearest such agencies are at 2500 Middlefield Road in Redwood City and 2415 University Ave. in East Palo Alto.
Regardless of the aid, a prolonged shutdown causes a huge hit to morale, potentially pushing some Ames workers to seek new employment. During past furloughs, NASA Ames reportedly lost some of its researchers and engineers after they were poached by local tech companies.
Rocha recalled the 16-day government shutdown in 2013. During that pay lapse, she said, the agency lost a highly talented cybersecurity expert who worked in NASA's supercomputer division. He opted to join Google, which offered him nearly double the salary. It was just one example of the "brain drain" that can result at NASA from the shutdown, she said.
Among the employees seeking aid on Thursday was Brenden Sanborn, who said missing a paycheck will make it hard for him to support his wife and two daughters.
“I have a lot of colleagues, including myself, who, if this goes on for even another week or two, we’re going to have to find another career outside the government,” he said.
Joel Lachter, a computer scientist in NASA's human systems integration division, said that as a Mountain View homeowner, he was relatively secure, and he was using the furlough time to learn to play the ukelele and piano. But the furlough still represents a huge setback for his various work projects, he said.
"I'm most worried about the contractors who aren't going to get back pay, or the younger employees who don't have savings," he said. "For me, it's just annoying. You're a professional, and all your work and everything just has to stop."
Ames union members joined other federal workers on Thursday for a protest rally at the EPA headquarters in San Francisco.
U.S. Geological Survey
The U.S. Geological Survey furloughed all but 75 of its 8,032 employees throughout the country, according to a statement on the U.S. Department of the Interior website. It's not clear how many of those employees work in Menlo Park. Those employees are expected to work only the hours needed to respond to urgent situations.
The preschool that operates on the USGS campus at 345 Middlefield Road, GeoKids, has stayed open through the shutdown, according to Menlo Park City Councilman Drew Combs. USGS offices are in the midst of a five-year process, which began in 2016, to transition headquarters from Menlo Park to NASA Ames Research Center at Moffett Field.
Rep. Jackie Speier, who represents Menlo Park's Belle Haven area, sent a letter on Jan. 11 to U.S. House of Representatives Chief Administrative Officer Philip Kiko asking that her pay as a congresswoman be withheld until the end of the shutdown.
Rep. Anna Eshoo, who represents the rest of Menlo Park and the remaining portion of The Almanac's coverage area, said in an email Monday that she has voted seven times to reopen the government and to guarantee federal workers will receive any loss of pay due to the shutdown.
"The bills I voted for are identical to those previously passed by the Senate with strong support of the Republicans shortly before Christmas, and they passed the House in the new Congress on a bipartisan basis," she said. "Democrats and some Republicans want to end this senseless shutdown, however, the Senate Majority Leader refuses to allow the legislation to fund the government to be voted on by the full Senate because, as he has stated, the President doesn’t support it."
Public pressure, she said, is what she believes will force the government to reopen. "Ultimately, I believe it will be the voiced rejection of the American people, state-by-state, that will place enough pressure on Republican senators to end this march to folly by voting to reopen the government, rather than standing with the White House and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell," she said. "A policy that hurts those who work for all of us and their families, takes a toll on our national economy, and threatens our national security cannot be defended or sustained."
Eshoo said she will contribute to community organizations in her congressional district that are assisting federal workers.
A list of many community resources available to federal employees and their families can be accessed through her Congress website here.
Have you or someone you know been affected by the shutdown? Email Almanac reporter Kate Bradshaw at email@example.com to share your story.
Kate Bradshaw and Magali Gauthier contributed to this report.