A walk through O'Hare Airport just days before the federal shutdown ended last week made two things fairly obvious: No. 1 -- there are always a lot of people flying in and out of Chicago; No. 2 -- they were waiting in longer lines than usual.
While the Transportation Security Administration wouldn't release numbers on workers who called out sick for specific airports, it did acknowledge that one in 10 TSA employees who were scheduled to work on Sunday, January 20, took the day off. Most cited "financial limitations" as their excuse. Last year, on the same day, TSA said 3 percent of the agency's employees called out sick.
Ted, who has worked as a TSA officer since 2011 and asked that his real name not be used, was one of the TSA employees who called in sick to O'Hare during the shutdown. "Three days," he says. "That's it. And I did it to make money."
Ted says he picked up some painting jobs with his brother and had a chance to paint a three-bedroom apartment, a storage room, a basement and a kitchen in four different locations. "It's real money, right now. I couldn't turn it down," he says.
Ted, who says he enjoys his job, admits that he's giving serious consideration to turning his part-time job as a painter into a full-time effort, at least for the near future. "I'm not one of those guys who save six months of pay in case of an emergency. I don't know any guys like that," he says. "I think about my future, but I also have to think about my possible future. That's what my pastor calls it. And my possible future has to have security. I know things happen, but if I do a good job, that should mean something."
Laura, also not her real name, echoes Ted' sentiment. "I do volunteer work for my church. I do volunteer work for the Lord. My job is not part of my volunteer work. My job is not part of my charity," she says.
The mother of two children under the age of five, Laura says she had to rely on help from her mother for groceries during the shutdown. She's still not sure what she'll do if another shutdown occurs later this month. "And getting paid later -- don't get me wrong, it's helpful and it's the right thing to do -- but getting paid later puts me in a bad spot," she says. "For every $100 I get late, I'm $110 in debt."
And the late checks don't address another problem, which Laura says was a "real punch to the gut" when she was working through the shutdown. "They kept talking about us being unpaid during but in truth, we were actually paying to not get paid," she says. "I was paying to take the CTA to a job that paid me nothing at the time. I was paying to buy lunch or to bring lunch from my food at home that I had to buy to a job that paid me nothing. It was like getting punched twice. The first punch to the gut stuns you but the second punch to the head might knock you out."
Ted gets a kick out of his co-worker's analogy. "I'm going to have to use that one," he says, laughing, as the three of us take an escalator down to the CTA's blue line.
"I don't think I can do this again," Laura says. "I've been thinking about some other things, other options."
Ted turns to me, trying to whisper. "She has babies at home. I don't have kids. I just have to worry about me," he says.
He says that's why he can take a chance on another job, whether it's starting a painting business or something else. "I can try doing something different because it's just me. If I don't have enough places to paint and the jobs stop coming, I can go sleep at my mom's house or my sister's house. They just have to give me a corner. If I had kids, it's all different," he says.
Laura cuts him off. "You. In a corner. Right. You see the size of this man? He's not living in a corner," she says.
"OK, a big corner," he says, "I've thought a lot about it."
They both laugh as they enter the train. I ask how much better this is than working during the shutdown, doing an honest day's work for an honest day's pay. "An honest day's pay on time. There's a big difference," Ted corrects me. "And it's good."
"Well," Laura says, "it's good for now."
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