WASHINGTON — Petty Officer First Class Ryan Mleziva thought his financial worries were over when he joined the Coast Guard. Now, he and his fellow service members may be about to miss their second paycheck in a row.
“My father was laid off several times while I was growing up. I went into this career because I wanted security,” said Mleziva, who traveled to Capitol Hill Tuesday on his day off to work with advocates on highlighting the impact of the ongoing government shutdown on Coast Guard families.
“I have full faith in the Coast Guard. I just hope our elected representatives show faith in us too.”
Mleziva was part of a group of 30 service members, spouses and supporters who visited congressional offices to share their shutdown stories. Guard members missed their scheduled paycheck on Jan. 15, and need legislative action this week to guarantee they won’t miss their next one on Jan. 30.
About 42,000 Coast Guard members have been required to work without pay since the start of the year, as the Department of Homeland Security operates on emergency orders because of the ongoing funding impasse between President Donald Trump and congressional Democrats.
Members of the other armed services have not seen similar disruptions because the Department of Defense received its full fiscal 2019 funding last fall. Because the Coast Guard is funded separately through Homeland Security, its members haven’t been as fortunate.
Both the House and Senate are considering separate bills which would allow the Coast Guard to be paid even if the 31-day-old shutdown isn’t resolved. But neither has made significant progress so far.
Jon Ostrowski, national president of the Coast Guard Chief Petty Officers Association, said without action soon, another 50,000 Coast Guard retirees will also lose out on their next benefits paycheck at the start of next month.
“People are starting to get worried,” he said. “Now they can’t pay their rent. Many may have made arrangements with landlords or banks to help them for the first month. Missing another paycheck will hit them hard.”
Michelle Alonso, a Coast Guard spouse who took part in Tuesday’s outreach event, said the uncertainty of the situation is draining families’ morale.
“It’s not knowing how long this is going to last,” she said. “People are buckling down, going to food pantries, worrying whether they can pay for their kids sports, calling companies to get bills deferred and payments deferred.
“It’s just the stress not knowing how long you can go without a paycheck.”
Fellow spouse Susan Bourassa said she worries too many lawmakers don’t appreciate the severity of that stress.
“We chose to make some sacrifices when we signed up or married into the Coast Guard,” she said. “We’re proud to be there. But part of making those sacrifices is that we thought there was a paycheck we could count on, through thick or thin. And here we are, not knowing what tomorrow brings.”
Trump has insisted any budget deal include more than $5 billion for his controversial southern border wall plan. But congressional Democrats thus far have rejected all proposals that include that money, saying the president must allow the government to reopen before they negotiate on immigration policy.
Roughly 800,000 federal workers have been furloughed or forced to work without pay during the government shutdown. In recent days, administration officials have been recalling additional personnel back to work to minimize the public effects of the shutdown, even though their paychecks remain frozen.
Mleziva said he is looking into picking up a weekend job to help make ends meet.
“I feel worst for my shipmates who are underway right now and don’t have that option,” he said.
On Monday, the crew of the Coast Guard Cutter Bertholf began a five-month deployment at sea despite the ongoing budget fight. In a Facebook Post, Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Karl Schultz praised them for “voluntarily going into harm’s way without a paycheck.”
“These U.S. service members will sail halfway across the world to protect U.S. national interests while their loved ones try to cope with financial challenges at home in this unprecedented time,” he wrote.
Mike Little, executive director of the Sea Service Family Foundation, which helped organize Tuesday’s lobbying event, said many service members who weathered the initial impact of missing a paycheck are starting to dread the coming weeks.
“Going forward, this is going to start looking dark for these families. They’re worried about how they pay the bills. And they just want to feel like their voice is being heard somewhere.”
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.