Thirty-three days into the US government shutdown, the only military branch affected has missed one paycheck and is on the verge of losing its next.
The Coast Guard and its roughly 41,000 active-duty members are part of the Homeland Security Department, which wasn’t funded before the government shut down last month. The other branches are part of the Defense Department, which is fully funded.
Officials found a way to pay Coast Guard members on December 31, but no such maneuver was possible for January 15. Legislative action is needed this week to make sure a check comes on January 30. Pay and benefits for Coast Guard civilian workers and retirees are also on the line this week.
‘We are in uncharted waters’
Some Coast Guard operations, like safety boardings and license services, have been curtailed, but missions related to saving lives and national security continue. Now the service’s current and former commandants have weighed in, rebuking the inaction prolonging the shutdown.
In a video posted Tuesday, commandant Adm. Karl Schultz told service members that he, the service’s leadership, and the public “stand in awe of your continued dedication to duty and resilience and that of your families.”
“We’re five-plus weeks into the anxiety and stress of this government lapse and your non-pay. You as members of the armed forces should not be expected to shoulder this burden,” Schultz said.
Schultz said he was heartened by assistance being officer to service members. “But ultimately I find it unacceptable that Coast Guard men and women have to rely food pantries and donations to get through day-to-day life.”
Paul Zukunft, who retired in June 2018 as an admiral after his four-year term as commandant, was more blunt in a column for the US Naval Institute’s Proceedings Magazine titled “Breaking Faith with America’s Coast Guard.”
Despite the service’s extensive and varied responsibilities and continuous operations, the Coast Guard is often overlooked by the public and by congressional appropriators, Zukunft writes.
“To add insult to injury, the Coast Guard is no longer ‘doing more with less,’ but ‘doing all with nothing,'” Zukunft says. “I have served shoulder to shoulder with our service members during previous government shutdowns and listened to the concerns of our all-volunteer force. This current government shutdown is doing long-term harm and is much more than pablum to feed the 24-hour news cycle.”
“We are now in uncharted waters given its duration and the hardship it’s causing, particularly at many Coast Guard installations that reside in high-cost communities along the US coastline where service personnel already live paycheck-to-paycheck to pay the bills and meet childcare costs that can exceed $2,000 per month for one child.”
‘We can only take it day by day’
For the more than 14,000 junior members of the Coast Guard — about one-third of the active-duty force — base pay is considered to be at or just under the poverty level, three former master chief petty officers said in an op-ed last week, adding that most of them don’t have the resources to live without pay “over any extended period.”
“We chose to make some sacrifices when we signed up or married into the Coast Guard,” Coast Guard spouse Susan Bourassa told Military Times. “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.”
Communities have rallied to support Coast Guard families — including in Alameda, California, home to four of the service’s new national-security cutters.
Last week, more than 600 service members, including 168 families, gathered there for a giveaway of everything from fresh fruit to diapers. This week, the cutter Bertholf and its more than 100 crew members left Alameda for a months-long Pacific deployment.
In a January 18 letter, vice commandant Adm. Charles Ray said Coast Guard Mutual Assistance, a nonprofit charity that assists the service, had increased the value of and expanded eligibility for interest-free loans it was offering.
Mutual Assistance is partnering with the Red Cross to distribute those funds, Schultz said this month. CGMA has “secured sufficient funds to put money in your hands to bridge through your personal financial challenges,” Schultz said in his video message. “That is your fund. That is your safety net.”
Ray’s letter said the service was working with the Defense Department “to notify all privatized government housing sites that Coast Guard [basic allowance for housing] allotments will not be available until funding is restored.”
But Ray cautioned that “the government does not have the authority to suspend or delay payments for these privatized contracts,” advising members to give housing managers the “letter to creditors” posted on the service’s website “that encourages flexibility until this situation is resolved.”
Jacqui Esparza, a grocery-store worker whose husband is a 14-year Coast Guard member, told Seattle’s Komo News that their landlord agreed to delay collecting January rent, but it was due in full on February 1.
“We are burning through [savings], and we are burning through my income, so we don’t know,” Esparza said.