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Congress hits beach, aviation workers hit unemployment lines

By Alan Silverleib, CNN
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Congress leaves thousands out of work
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • 4,000 aviation workers are being furloughed because Congress hasn't approved FAA funding
  • Thousands of other workers are also affected because of the failure to pass legislation
  • An FAA engineer from Atlanta says, "Congress doesn't care about me at all"
  • An FAA employee from Seattle calls the failure to pass a bill a "clear attack on middle America"

(CNN) -- Neil Bolen has worked as a civil engineer with the Federal Aviation Administration for the past 24 years, designing air traffic control radar systems that help keep America moving.

Now he's got a message for Congress: Get moving on a plan to save his job.

Bolen, a 48-year-old father of two from the Atlanta area, is one of thousands of Americans with ties to the aviation industry who are suddenly finding themselves out of work this summer because of Congress's failure to pass routine legislation keeping the FAA funded. The House and Senate have gone on vacation, leaving Bolen on furlough.

He's had no choice but to file for unemployment, prioritize which bills to pay, and dig into his family's savings in order to make ends meet.

"Congress doesn't care about me at all," Bolen told CNN. "They're not done with their work and they go on vacation. How do they do that?"

Bolen says he's tried to "avoid politics as a rule" his whole life, but now he's calling his congressman and senators -- to no avail.

"It's always somebody else's fault" when you call their offices, he says. "It's never our fault."

The House adjourned Monday after a divisive vote to raise the national debt ceiling, leaving the Senate with an FAA funding extension bill it did not like and could not amend. So the Senate recessed Tuesday night without doing anything.

At issue is a decision by Rep. John Mica, a Florida Republican, to add a provision to the funding extension cutting subsidies to rural airports. The measure is opposed by powerful Democrats such as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada.

There's also a dispute over provisions that would make it easier for airline employees to unionize. Democrats support the section; Republicans generally oppose it.

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Bolen and 4,000 other FAA employees are stuck in the middle of the dispute. But they're not the only people being hurt. The FAA has stopped hundreds of airport construction projects nationwide, putting about 24,000 construction workers out of work.

Another 35,000 support workers, such as food service vendors, are also affected, according to the Associated General Contractors of America.

The FAA says the impasse will also prevent the federal government from collecting approximately $200 million a week in airline passenger taxes -- or about $1.2 billion during the congressional recess.

Other workers caught up in the mess share Bolen's frustrating and growing anger with Congress.

"We're into the politics of confrontation versus looking out for the interests for constituents," said Troy Swanberg, a mechanical engineer from Chicago. "I'm really disappointed."

He called the situation "unconscionable."

Swanberg, 42, has worked for the FAA for 20 years and has a 2-year-old daughter. Like Bolen, he's digging into his savings. He's also looking for another job.

Robert Aitken, 47, works for the FAA in Burlington, Massachusetts. He's been with the FAA for 18 years, and before that spent five years in the Navy. He has two children, ages 9 and 12.

"We're just in shock that (Congress) actually did not get this done," he told CNN. "We understand this is politics, but this is just insane."

Aitken said he's "very upset" Congress "didn't think this was important enough to stick around for." He stressed that it's not just federal workers who are being hurt by the latest Washington stalemate.

"They're going to put people out of business," he warned. "Small companies will go under."

Curtis Howe, 50, works for the FAA in Seattle. He helped build the control tower at nearby Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, among other things.

Recently, he and his wife took out a 15-year home equity loan in order to put a new roof on their house. Now he's being forced to use that money to pay his regular bills.

"It's almost like there's a ... dog walking down the road, and he picked up a hand grenade in his mouth and it's going to go off. They don't even know what they're doing," he said in reference to Congress. "Who are they? Are they better than us?"

"This is a clear attack on middle America," Howe said. "This is a punch in the face. It's terrible."

CNN's Jennifer Liberto contributed to this report

 
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