Fed up with mandatory shifts and no pay, the union for corrections workers at Kentucky’s five federal prisons had begun putting up billboards in the home state of U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, demanding action from the Republican majority leader on the ongoing government shutdown.
“McConnell: End the shutdown now!,” blares one in oversize letters. “Murderers are eating roast beef and Cornish hens while officers are working UNPAID.”
That’s a reference to recent news reports that the nation’s federal inmates feasted on traditional holiday dinners even as corrections officers were ordered to work without pay after the partial shutdown began Dec. 22.
But Friday, the 2,000 Kentuckians who work in federal prisons got some good news when President Donald Trump announced he and Congressional leaders had struck a deal to end the shutdown for three weeks while they negotiate more security on the border between the United States and Mexico.
“We’re thrilled,” said Robin Goode, a nurse who works at the Federal Medical Center in Lexington and serves as president of the local union. “Staff was at the point where they was scared, they was scared of the unknown.”
Goode said she expects morale will improve greatly among employees “when paychecks hit their accounts and they can pay their bills.”
The main concern, she said, is that another shutdown might occur if the president and Congress can’t reach a long-term agreement.
“There’s a chance it could happen all over again,” Goode said. “We’re hoping both sides can come together and come up with a reasonable compromise.”
Corrections union officials had serious concerns about the impact of an ongoing shutdown on short-staffed federal prisons, said Eric Young, national president of the American Federation of Government Employees Council of Prisons, which erected the billboards.
“We’ve got a serious situation on our hands,” Young said. “The inmates, they’re watching the shutdown on TV. They could easily take over a prison.”
Jan. 25 marked the second missed paycheck for workers affected by the shutdown — an increasing hardship for people facing mortgage payments, heating bills and other expenses, such as child support, say their union officials.
“I’ve had a couple of people say they’ve borrowed money from family members to get by,” said Chuck Morrison, president of the Kentucky Chapter of the Professional Aviation Safety Specialists. “The longer you go, the harder it is to get by.”
About 800,000 federal workers have gone without paychecks nationwide, with about 6,300 of them in Kentucky, according to an estimate by the Center for American Progress, a progressive, non-partisan policy institute.
That includes some federal prosecutors in Louisville who worked without pay, while others were furloughed.
“Despite the present challenges, the men and women of the U.S. Attorney’s Office remain focused on the mission of protecting the 53 counties of the Western District,” spokesman Nick Storm said in an email.
At Kentucky’s airports, Transportation Security Administration staff, who shuffle travelers through security checkpoints, are the most visible of the many unpaid air safety officials on the job.
But behind the scenes, airports, skeleton crews of federal safety inspectors and technicians who keep computers and other electronic equipment operating are required to work without pay, Morrison, their union president, said.
He questions Federal Aviation Administration claims that the nation’s air travel is safe.
“All you’re going to hear from the FAA is that everything’s safe,” he said. “In reality, there’s definitely a reduction in safety in air travel and every day it goes on it gets worse.”
An FAA spokesman in a statement disputed that.
“Overall, the traveling public can be assured that our nation’s airspace system is safe,” the statement said. “Air traffic controllers and the technicians who maintain the nation’s airspace system continue to work without pay as they fill a critical mission to ensure the public’s safety.”