NASA Ames Workers Struggle to Get By Amid Federal Shutdown

Gov. Gavin Newsom defied the Trump administration by encouraging the thousands of government workers affected by the shutdown to apply for unemployment insurance.

“We’ll cover you,” he vowed in announcing the plan last week. “We have your back.”

The reality has been a lot less reassuring, says Cris Andes, a 53-year-old NASA researcher and San Jose resident who’s been on call and unpaid since the shutdown began. Trying to access those benefits puts her on a Kafkaesque, bureaucratic loop.

“It’s a mess,” says Andes, one of about 1,200 federal workers who work at the NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View. “Newsom made it sound straightforward, but I applied on [Jan. 6], and I can tell you that nothing’s changed.”

That’s because the directive alone did nothing to change the maddeningly ponderous process, which seems to vary from case to case depending on the savviness of the person on the other end of the line.

For Andes, it went something like this ...

After receiving her letter requesting benefits, the California Employment Development Department (EDD), which only handles these things from 8am to noon on weekdays, called the personnel office at NASA Ames. Because 95 percent of NASA employees are banned from the case during the shutdown, however, no one’s there to answer the phone.

No matter: per the EDD, they have to do it anyway. It’s all part of the process, which for some reason cannot be done online and must involve fax machines or meandering, choose-your-own-adventure-style touch tone phone calls. The next step involves punting the application to another division, which verifies wages and authorizes the benefits.

Debit cards take another week to issue and send, which means even the folks who applied on the first possible day won’t see their plastic lifeline until at least next week—by which point, one hopes, the shutdown could be over.

“When I called at 11 one day, by the time I was off hold, it was 12:30, and the woman on the line said she was working overtime to take my call,” recounts Misty Davies, a 43-year-old aerospace engineer who spent the better part of her past decade in federal employ at NASA Ames. “So they’re trying to work things out, too. It’s just very frustrating.”

It’s day 34 of the longest government shutdown—by far—in U.S. history. The 800,000 federal employees who are either furloughed or forced to work without pay are entitled to recover lost wages. The 4 million or so federal contractors, about 1,000 of whom rely on work from NASA Ames, have no such guarantee.

Though the Senate today considers a pair of bills that could end the impasse over President Donald Trump’s insistence on $5.7 billion for a steel-slatted border barrier, the damage is done. In some cases—particularly in the research field—for years to come.

The short-term effects are evident. Collaborations have ground to a halt. Funding is delayed, data are inaccessible, research sites are closed (at NASA Ames surrounded by an impenetrable black barrier), conference panels are bereft of key experts and public lands and water get laid to waste. Because of the shutdown, for example, NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have yet to issue their annual temperature analysis, which—since it’s a benchmark for so many other countries—delays similar reports from other governments.

NASA’s postdoctoral program, one of the main pipelines of new talent for the agency, ran out of funding on Jan. 18, leaving cash-strapped grad students on unpaid leave. Davies, who’s in charge of recruiting PhD candidates to work at NASA Ames this summer, is banned from even speaking with them for the time being.

“They’re not going to wait,” Davies says. “They have to make other plans, so we don’t even know yet how this is going to impact us this summer. Everything’s snowballing.”

For Davies, the furlough means work has stalled on critical work under her purview involving autonomous flight and working with the Federal Aviation Administration to make sure those systems are safe. Elsewhere at Ames, bioscience research involving things like harvesting energy from algae are stalled. Anecdotally, there are reports of scientists sneaking back into the base to feed their microbes.

“Nobody expected the shutdown to last this long,” says Davies, a Saratoga resident, mother of two grade-school kids and treasurer of NASA Ames’ federal employee union. “Nobody prepared for this.”

Andes, who has to continue working without pay because she’s considered an essential employee, says it’s been hard to keep her cool at work as anxiety mounts about her dwindling rainy day fund. “It wasn’t too bad in the beginning, but it’s taking its toll on me now,” she says. “I’m starting to get mad, I get resentful at work. I was in a meeting last week and behaved in a way that was very unlike me. I had to apologize, I had to email an engineer later that afternoon to apologize for being unprofessional. I mean, I try to keep it together, because it’s not their fault, and he said he understands. But it is hard.”

Luckily, Andes says, she and her husband have a savings to dip into. Many of the younger researchers have no such cushion, however. Davies, who created a Facebook group called Shutdown Strategies for furloughed workers, says she knows some of them have had to find other jobs or have opted to pursue opportunities in other fields just to get by.

“This is who’s been most effected: the young, talented people we were about to hire or had just hired, who had no nest eggs built up yet,” Davies says. “They’re just figuring out how to survive in the Bay Area.”

Longer-term effects of the shutdown remain to be seen, but the outlook is grim.

Veteran federal employees say the prolonged closure will discourage future talent from pursuing careers in civil service. Working as a government scientist is something of a higher calling, Davies explains—especially in Silicon Valley where equivalent private-sector jobs pay nearly twice what NASA can offer.

“You do it for altruism or patriotism or love of the job,” she says.

If political dysfunction vitiates that good will, however, the government will struggle even more to recruit and retain people who can, among myriad other things, design satellites, fight disease and forecast natural disasters.

And that, Davis laments, is a price we’ll keep on paying long after this impasse ends.

Jennifer Wadsworth is the news editor for San Jose Inside and Metro Silicon Valley. Email tips to [email protected] or follow her on Twitter at @jennwadsworth.

10 Comments

  1. This really sucks. All this over an unneeded ‘border wall’. Thanks a lot, republicans. Your ugly is showing up even more here in the bay area in the form of being taken hostage by the cheeto-in-chief. Mitch McConnell is displaying serious signs of Stockholm Syndrome.

    • Don’t blame “Republicans,” blame the morons at the top who happen to be registered as my party. Name names, drop generalizations.

      • I did name a name: Mitch, who’s being held captive by someone he wishes wasn’t in the top position of the republican party.

        But you’re right, Normal. The “R” party today is not the same as it was in, say, Eisenhower’s day. It started the slow takeover by the right wing fringe back around Ronny Raygun’s time. It’s too bad that the reasonableness of everyone back then was lost. Oh, and here’s another name that was to blame for this shift to shiftlessness: the poisonous Newt Gingrich.

        Good luck, brave scientists of NASA Ames. We’re with you in spirit, and here’s hoping this nonsense about a border wall is over soon.

        • > Good luck, brave scientists of NASA Ames.

          Brave?

          How brave is it to sit home watching the TV while the banks “intermediate” your paycheck?

          Intermediate: Federal Government gives brave scientist a “triple AAA” IOU. Brave scientist takes IOU to the bank. Bank gives brave scientist his full paycheck amount. THERE IS NO CREDIT RISK TO THE BANK.

          Oh, but the brave scientist has to pay interest.

          Oh, but the brave scientist can play video games and drive for Uber WHILE GETTING PAID BY THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT.

          CRY ME A RIVER. Private sector jobs that are shut down get NOTHING,

          Nancy Narcissist’s government shutdown is costing the U.S. economy two or three percent of it’s GDP.

          There was no government shutdown UNTIL Nancy and the Dems took over the House.

          Everything was working until SHE showed up.

  2. Oh. baloney, baloney, baloney.

    The Federal government has GUARANTEED the back pay of federal workers.

    They can go to any bank and borrow money.

    If the banks DON’T lend the money, Elizabeth Warren’s Consumer Financial Protection Bureau will bully them.

    The government shutdown is a fake crisis (expensive and wasteful for taxpayers).

    The lack of border security is a REAL CRISIS, which the fake news media won’t talk about.

    The reason SCC Resident seems so ignorant and uninformed: CNN, MSNBC, Jim Acosta, etc. etc. etc.

    • Are you saying that working Americans shouldn’t be worried about missing paycheck after paycheck? You wouldn’t have a cash flow issue if you went without pay temporarily? And you think they should get loans and have to pay interest in order to just pay the bills?

      Even worse, places like Ames have contractors and university researchers who aren’t government employees. While the site is closed, they aren’t getting paid. And it’s doubtful they would ever get paid. This is basically a layoff for them. Should certainly show up in the next unemployment numbers.

      Plus, when the research is on hold, students are having their graduations delayed, which means entering the workforce later, causing economic hardship. Some experiments won’t survive the weeks/months of neglect. And falling further behind the rest of the world in scientific research will harm the US economy.

      • > And falling further behind the rest of the world in scientific research will harm the US economy.

        David:

        You’re not paying attention.

        THE BORDER! IS WIDE OPEN! Illegal aliens from the third world are flooding in!

        MS-13 gangs! Fentanyl! Disease carriers! Tuberculosis! Murderers! Rapists!

        FUTURE DEMOCRAT VOTERS!

        THEY’RE FLOODING IN!

        THERE’S A BORDER CRISIS!

        The U.S.economy IS being harmed! We’re paying federal employees a BILLION DOLLARS A DAY for HOURS NOT WORKED.

        We’ve WASTED THIRTY BILLION DOLLARS because NANCY PELOSI REFUSED TO VOTE FOR A $5.7 BILLION DOLLAR BORDER WALL!

        What’s wrong with you? Are you dumb?

        Everything was working fine until Democrats took over the House of Representatives and Nancy Pelosi became speaker.

  3. Call Nancy Pelosi. tell her to “Build the Wall”.

    It’s okay, we know you really want it.

    Courage my neighbors, courage.

  4. 2010 Barack the Bomber shut down the company I worked for Nasty Pelosi said this was a good thing as most people hate their jobs anyway. We should take up art or basket weaving, perhaps getting in touch with their inner selves.

    Nasty this plague is on your hands, you would never be this cheap if you wanted to stop guns smuggled across the border. Yet these people outright kill about 2000 of us a year and poison an estimated 30,000 more with illegal drugs
    smuggled in.

    Shame on Democrat’s for this selfish homemade disaster!

    End It Now Build The Wall !

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