National Weather Service is open 24/7, but forecasters are working without pay
Despite working the swing shift this week and seeing no sign of a paycheck any time soon, Jason Wright feels lucky. The meteorologist and National Weather Service union steward has some savings, a generous father-in-law and a boss who is trying to make the federal shutdown as painless as possible.
That’s a tough job. More than 4,000 National Weather Service employees are working day and night without pay this month. Some have already missed a paycheck – only a day’s worth, if they happened to work Dec. 22. But they’re going to miss a big one this week.
“I can go a couple pay periods and be OK,” Wright said. For others in his Nashville, Tennessee, forecast office, though, “missing just one paycheck can be devastating.”
The federal government has three levels of shutdown: furloughed, excepted and emergency. The furloughed employees aren’t working and won’t get paid. The emergency workers are only called in if something terrible happens. Excepted employees continue working without pay for the duration of the shutdown, until Congress passes a bill to pay them back. An oft-overlooked footnote to that policy: They also can’t take any kind of leave. No sick days, no vacation, no maternity. If they do, they are furloughed and they will not be paid at all.
“I think morale is lower. … It depends on what NWS office you’re in,” Wright said. Even in his office, where he says his boss is well-liked and morale is as high as it can be in a situation like this, one of his colleagues is going to have to take furlough. His wife needs emergency surgery, and he has a son with special needs. There’s no other option.
Wright was disappointed that he couldn’t accompany his two sons and wife, who is also stressed because her husband isn’t getting paid, on a soccer tournament trip this weekend. His kids are adopted and from different backgrounds, and his youngest struggles, he said. He had to skip the trip, and he’s doing everything to guarantee he gets paid eventually. Hopefully.
Becky Kern was gearing up Wednesday to start seven night shifts in a row at the Omaha forecast office, and wrapping her head around the lack of paycheck this week. She and her husband live with their two teenagers, their 7-year-old, two dogs and a mortgage. Kern is the primary breadwinner.
“We are lucky,” Kern said, speaking as the union steward for her forecast office, “and I’m not trying to throw a pity party. But if I knew that on the first of February I will get some reimbursement money, that gives me peace of mind, you know? If I knew payday was going to be the first of April, I can arrange things. But just having no idea when. … Gives us a lot of anxiety.”
Meteorologists are uniquely devoted to their jobs. So devoted that they will work for weeks without a paycheck. And it’s not easy work. They are trained for years to do what they do, even though they’re often derided for “being wrong all the time,” Kern said.
The hours can be brutal. The Weather Service offices are open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and everyone rotates from day to swing to night shift. In that time, forecasters issue watches and warnings for tornadoes, hurricanes, winter storms, avalanches. They work with emergency managers in the case of life-threatening disasters like California wildfires, dam failures or hurricanes. They have mere minutes to place a warning in the path of a tornado, a message that will trigger emergency sirens and the tones that buzz on mobile phones.
The work is demanding on a good day. What happens when you add the stress of not getting a paycheck, and not knowing when one will come?
Kern said the colleagues at her office don’t talk about their feelings about the shutdown. Even though the National Weather Service is unionized, there is a strong aversion to speaking openly about their jobs or the organization. But she sees the morale dropping across the Weather Service as a whole, “through our union page and social media … where we go to air our struggles.”
If the shutdown extends into February, Kern said she would have to start cashing out retirement funds. Wright can last a month without pay, but not much longer.
He said he was watching Fox News as he got ready for his swing shift Wednesday. He said he chuckled as one of the talking heads suggested that federal workers could just “go get another job” to get paid.
“We are just pawns to the political disagreement,” Wright said.