While government leaders reached a deal Friday to open the federal government — temporarily — after it was closed for more than a month, some local federal employees have struggled to make ends meet during the shutdown. Local community members stepped up to help out.
After missing at least one full paycheck, federal workers have faced the challenge of meeting their basic needs — food, rent and gas money — while attending to their duties as air traffic controllers, Transportation Security Administration agents and Coast Guard crews. Federal employees had worked for 35 days without pay as of Friday.
Two College of William and Mary sophomores said the idea that federal workers could go home hungry and without a dime after their shifts was “morally wrong” and they wanted to do something about it.
Matthew Boyer and Alhassan “Gabe” Ouf had just returned from winter break when they decided to organize a mass food donation for TSA agents who work at Newport News/Williamsburg International Airport.
Four days later — on Wednesday night — the pair loaded up Boyer’s Kia Sorrento SUV and a friend’s Toyota sedan with 60 care packages and hot meals for the federal employees.
“These people are not being treated in the way that they should be,” Ouf said of the conversation with Boyer that spurred the delivery. “These people haven’t gotten a paycheck in over a month, and let’s do something.”
For most government workers, their last paycheck came Dec. 28, according to Time.
Each care package contained a box of spaghetti, a jar of marinara sauce, two cans of beans, a can of soup, six granola bars, a box of macaroni and cheese and a jar of peanut butter, Ouf said. Half of all the care packages also contained feminine hygiene products.
For Boyer, the crisis federal workers face is a personal one.
“My mother, she was Navy for eight years and U.S. Public Health Service for another 12,” Boyer said. “She’s worked in government her entire life. One of the basic tenets she learned from her military service is that you look out for your own.”
Boyer and Ouf organized a four-day food drive where fraternities, sororities and several social organizations at William and Mary donated items, including macaroni and cheese for TSA workers. The two students used their own money to pay for the remaining care package items.
Sal’s By Victor also donated two restaurant trays of baked penne, one tray of garlic knots and a tray of house salad for the pair to take to the airport.
"It's a blessing to us," TSA agent Karen Herod said. She has worked for TSA for 12 years and weathered more than one government shutdown while trying to raise a family in Hampton.
“There's a little uncertainty at this time,” Herod said of the shutdown. “It's people like them that show the heart of the community."
Boyer and Ouf have coordinated with other Williamsburg restaurants to organize future food donations.
On Thursday night, the two returned to the airport with trays of pork barbecue, coleslaw, macaroni and cheese and green beans donated by Pierce’s Pitt Bar-B-Que.
Restaurant manager Meghan Morrisette said owner Jay Pierce jumped at the chance to get involved with local relief efforts.
“It’s something that we knew we just had to jump on board and do because it’s our community, it’s our customers,” she said. “We’ve been here for 48 years, so it’s the people that he’s grown up with and the people that we see coming into the restaurant every day that are being affected.”
After being forced to close during a 2013 government shutdown, Carrot Tree co-owner Glenn Helseth said he knew he had to help federal employees who have gone without pay.
The restaurant’s Yorktown location was forced to close in 2013 because it operated out of the Cole Digges House, which is owned by the National Park Service. Helseth said he remembers the financial stress his employees were under at the time.
Carrot Tree’s Yorktown location offered free meals to Coast Guard members until the government re-opens, and Helseth said he’s fed some 130 service members since the shutdown started. Carrot Tree Kitchens on Jamestown Road hosted a free all-you-can-eat spaghetti dinner for government employees, contractors and their families Friday.
After fundraising at both locations, the restaurant also recently made a $1,000 donation to the Coast Guard Benevolent Fund, he said.
“The fact that people like FBI and TSA agents, air traffic controllers and the Coast Guard aren’t receiving pay and are being forced to go into debt or take out loans, it just made us want to do something,” Helseth said.
‘Hit in the gut’
Tom Rooks, 44, served in the Coast Guard for 22 years and worked as a senior chief petty officer at the Coast Guard Training Center in Yorktown before retiring in September. He now lives in Queens Lake and is the head coach for the Williamsburg Boat Club.
He said became concerned when he learned a friend stationed at the Yorktown base was looking for day-labor jobs in the area to pay the bills.
“It felt like I got hit in the gut because the men who I served with are some of the best people that I’ve ever known,” he said. “Not that day labor is beneath them, but the idea that they had to resort to that just to be able to get groceries — I just felt like screaming at the TV or calling your congressman isn’t going to put groceries in their family’s pantry.”
Rooks emailed his homeowners association and asked neighbors who needed odd jobs done around their homes to hire Coast Guard service members.
Within six hours of sending the initial email, Rooks said he received responses from neighbors eager to help. After he compiled all of the jobs into a spreadsheet, he shared it with senior petty officers at the base to distribute among service members in need.
Since starting the spreadsheet last week, Rooks said he’s had close to 40 active duty Coast Guard members from Yorktown sign up for day-labor jobs in and around Queens Lake.
Jobs posted in the spreadsheet range from spreading gravel and moving boxes from garages, to removing downed tree branches and pressure-washing decks. Neighbors are encouraged to pay Coast Guard service members $25 per hour for the work.
“These men and women that I served with, they’ll fight each other for the chance to risk their lives to save a stranger, and now they’re still doing it, but not getting paid for it,” he said. “We’re supposed to be better than this.”
With the deal to temporarily re-open the government waiting on Congressional approval Friday afternoon, it remains unclear when federal employees will be paid. Rooks said he plans to continue helping Coast Guard members through his online job board until service members at the Yorktown base start getting paid.
“I’m not going to take anything down until we have more security,” he said. “The men and women at the base are really just trying to figure it all out, and the hardest part is the uncertainty.”
Ways to help
Area residents interested in offering day labor jobs for Coast Guard members can reach Rooks at Tom.J.Rooks@gmail.com.
The Greater Williamsburg Chamber & Tourism Alliance has compiled a list of local businesses offering discounts or gathering donations for unpaid federal employees, which can be found at bit.ly/2sJCfkr.