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How Employees With The Federal Bureau Of Prisons Are Coping During The Shutdown


About half of the 800,000 furloughed federal employees are having to work without pay. And that includes around 35,000 prison guards and staff at federal correctional institutions. They're already on the lower end of the pay scale, with little financial cushion. NPR's Martin Kaste reports on how they're coping during the shutdown.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: Federal prison guards missed their first full paycheck last week, and a big topic right now is gas money. A lot of these prisons are in small towns and rural settings. Long drives are typical. And that presents the guards with a conundrum.

CHARLES JONES: They're still required to come to work, but they can't afford to come to work. They don't have gas to put in their vehicles.

KASTE: That's Charles Jones, a guard at Marianna Federal Correctional Institution in the Florida Panhandle. He says some guards are taking side jobs. Others are postponing car and house payments. His own wife has been going online to sell some of their stuff. He puts down the phone for a second to ask her what she sold so far.

JONES: Hey, babe, what are some of the things you've sold on Letgo? Oh, like, the external drives - she sold one of those that we had. We had a, you know, a spare cabinet that we, you know, we cleaned up, and she sold that on there. Just, we look around, we're like, OK, what can we try to get rid of, maybe, that somebody wants? And you do stuff like that.

MATTHEW SHAPIRO: That's kind of shocking when government workers, who we're relying on for the safety of our prisons, are having to sell off their belongings in order to make ends meet.

KASTE: Matthew Shapiro's an economics professor at the University of Michigan. He studied the financial resilience of government workers during another shutdown in 2013 to see how they coped. He found that they generally had enough cushion to get through one missed paycheck, but not much more.

SHAPIRO: Based on our work and looking at 2013, and we have no reason to believe things have changed much in terms of how much government workers keep in their checking accounts, almost all will run out of cash after a second payless paycheck.

KASTE: That second payless paycheck is coming later this week. President Trump has signed legislation guaranteeing federal workers back pay once the shutdown ends. But until then, prison guards have to keep showing up for work.

They don't even have the option of protesting with a work stoppage or slowdown, says Jacqueline Simon. She's policy director for the national union the American Federation of Government Employees.

JACQUELINE SIMON: Strikes are absolutely illegal and off the table for federal employees. Any kind of concerted action that even involves, you know, staying home is off the table. We don't condone that. We don't coordinate that. We have instructed our members, if you are directed to go to work, as an accepted employee, then you must go to work.

KASTE: But guards can call in sick. Aaron McGlothin says he's noticed more guards are staying home for medical reasons. He's a correctional officer at a federal prison in Mendota, Calif. He's also the union local president. And last Thursday and Friday, he, himself, called in sick.

AARON MCGLOTHIN: My doctor says, hey, you know what? You need to stay home and not be around that right now. And take care of your health.

KASTE: There's a lot of stress in the prisons right now, he says - stress for the staff as the shutdown drags on and guards worry about looming bills. And then there's the fact that inside those prisons, daily life hasn't really changed yet.

MCGLOTHIN: It's business as usual for the inmates. They still get fed their meals, and they still have their jobs that they go to. And they still get their inmate pay. It's kind of a slap in the face when an inmate can still get his pay, but the staff that come in and do those jobs and put their safety on the line - they don't get paid.

KASTE: After his two sick days, McGlothin was planning a drive up to San Francisco over the weekend because he'd heard that you can make some decent money up there on Saturdays driving for Uber. Martin Kaste, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.