ORLANDO, Fla. — For the past 15 years, air traffic controller Ken Scheele has been doing a job he calls fast-paced and challenging, guiding planes through airspace and overseeing safety.
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Now, he's handing out leaflets to passengers at Orlando International Airport, warning them that safety could be compromised if the partial government shutdown stretches on.
Because of the shutdown, thousands of workers are not being paid and that includes air traffic controllers, like those at Orlando International Airport, one of the busiest airports in the country.
President Donald Trump signed a bill Wednesday that required federal workers to be compensated for lost wages or work performed during the shutdown once the government reopens.
Still, "the stress level and anger will start to take an impact on people," Scheele said.
Workers are burned out. Four can't report to work because of the shutdown. And they're concerned how they will pay their bills, Scheele said.
Yesterday, he got a paycheck of just more than $1, despite having worked the holidays.
"Here in Orlando, pretty much everyone's working six-day work weeks; some 10-hour days (are) involved in there," he said. "We have one individual, (a) single father with a special-needs son. He's coming to work having to deal with this and pay for school for a special needs son as well."
This comes as the National Air Traffic Controllers Association and others filed a lawsuit against the government. The labor union and the aviation safety organization represents almost 20,000 air traffic controllers and engineers.
On Tuesday, District of Columbia District Judge Richard J. Leon ruled against them, saying he could not issue an order that would allow necessary workers stay home if they are not being paid.
If he did that, critical jobs would not be done, which would create "chaos," he said.
NATCA Executive Vice President Trish Gilbert said in a statement that the organization is disappointed with the judge's ruling, denying NATCA's motion for a temporary restraining order. However, Gilbert was encouraged that Leon acknowledged the hardships for members.
"Although we are disappointed with the judge’s ruling denying NATCA’s motion for a temporary restraining order, we are encouraged that he acknowledged the ongoing hardships our members are facing because of the shutdown. In recognition that time is of the essence, the judge ordered expedited briefing on NATCA’s motion for a preliminary injunction. We will continue to oppose the injustice of our members working while being deprived of their earned wages and look forward to making our argument on Jan. 31," she stated.
Angela Ikomoni, who flew into Orlando International Airport on Wednesday morning from Atlanta, got a pamphlet from Scheele.
"It's bad, it's sad, because I'm sure most of them have families, you know? They have to pay their bills," she said. "Let the country move forward. I believe it should stop."
Scheele is trying to be optimistic, despite plummeting morale. On Wednesday, he brought in breakfast for his 50 or so colleagues.
Now, he hopes he can make other travelers aware of what air traffic controllers are up against, sending a message to Washington, D.C.
"We've got to get this passed. Quit using us as political pawns and get the budget passed. Put us to work," he said.
There is a donation drive underway at the airport to help the out-of-work employees. They'll be accepting nonperishable food items, toiletries and baby supplies this evening from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. at Terminal A's departure valet area.