Hardship all around in FAA dustup

Tuesday - 8/2/2011, 5:45am EDT

Emily Kopp and Jared Serbu, Federal News Radio reporters

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By Emily Kopp
and Jared Serbu
Federal News Radio

At least one group of furloughed Federal Aviation Administration workers is still on the job: 40 inspectors are reviewing safety at airports, but they're working without pay.

"They're traveling around the country to airports at their own expense," said FAA deputy administrator Michael Huerta. "Now this is our busiest time of year, and our inspectors are paying to do their jobs out of their own pocket. They cannot get paid and they cannot be reimbursed unless Congress passes an FAA bill."

The safety inspectors are among thousands of workers not getting a dime until Congress reauthorizes the FAA bill.

"My plea to Congress is, before you head off on your family vacations, on your personal time, think about 4,000 FAA employees who are not getting paychecks, think about 70,000 construction workers who are right smack dab in the middle of their season when they can do the most work on these projects," said Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood in a conference call with reporters Monday.

LaHood had just returned from LaGuardia Airport in New York, where construction workers should have been tearing down the old traffic control tower. But it's quiet. Elsewhere, renovations are postponed. Runway lights aren't being replaced.

Officials say the safety inspectors will get back pay once Congress passes the reauthorization bill. But the nearly 4,000 other FAA employees on furlough won't have access to the same pot of money.

"They're emailing us every day wanting to know if they're going to be compensated for these days," said LaHood. "Our answer is: they will be compensated when Congress passes legislation appropriating the money."

Senate Democrats have introduced a bill to pay the furloughed workers. But House Republicans want a compromise on reauthorization language first.

"No legislation will be considered until we get a resolution moving forward, either with an extension - one that's been pending for more than a week in the Senate now - or that we get a long-term bill enacted and we can negotiate at the same time making people whole who have been damaged by this," House Transportation Committee Chairman John Mica (R-Fla.) told Federal News Radio last week.

Mica may get what he wants from the Senate, where Democratic leaders now are expected to agree to cuts in federal subsidies for service to some of the most expensive-to-serve rural airports.

"Once these projects are up and running, we'll have to take a look at if there were issues that need to be dealt with as a result of shutdown," Mica said. "Some of that will depend on the number of days the projects were shut down."

So far, the FAA has stopped work on more than 200 projects with a total contract value of $2.5 billion. They range from asbestos removal in New York to the NextGen air traffic control modernization program.

Even if there are questions about whether federal employees who have been furloughed will be made whole, there's little doubt about the paychecks of the construction workers who've been sent home from FAA-funded projects, said Brian Turmail, a spokesman for the Associated General Contractors of America. He said in most cases, those workers have no hope of getting back pay.

"It's not like an office job, where if you have a project you're not working on for a week, maybe you're spending more time on the Internet," he said. "When you're a construction worker, if there's no work for you to do, you don't get a paycheck. You stay at home, or you go to the union hall and look for another job."

A George Mason University analysis commissioned by the contractors' group estimated there are 24,000 contractor employees who are out of work because of the partial shutdown. The ripple effects, the study found, extend to another 35,000 jobs.

Turmail said they include,"everyone from the folks working at the concrete plant making the concrete to the folks providing orange vests and hardhats and supply businesses related to construction."

That's not to minimize the impact on furloughed FAA workers. Even if they do get back pay, their work is piling up and they're not allowed to do it, said David Bennett, a former director of Airport Safety and Standards at the FAA. The aviation consultancy he runs is one of the 241 companies that have gotten stop-work orders from the FAA amidst the shutdown.

"The impact on me personally isn't so great. What I would worry about is the [FAA] employees," he said. "Their work won't go away. When they come back, it will be waiting for them. The approvals and other things that they have to do are just pending, and every airport that's waiting to get a project approved or get some work done that needs to run through the FAA will still want to do that. It's a double hardship for them. Even if they get paid later they'll still have a very busy work schedule catching up with this time."