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Coast Guard facing pay uncertainty

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The Washington Post

Guard Petty Officer 1st Class Joseph Stoltz and his wife, Jenilee, knew that moving to Guam for his military career would be an adjustment. But after two typhoons struck the Pacific island this fall, the family now faces another worry: a federal government shutdown with no end in sight.

The shuttering of parts of the government has not affected the other military services because the Defense Department has a budget approved into next year. But the Coast Guard receives funding from the Department of Homeland Security, subjecting it to the shutdown along with the department’s other agencies.

The situation came into sharp focus as Congress adjourned this week without resolution in the dispute over President Donald Trump’s proposed $5 billion border wall.

The shutdown could affect about 42,000 active-duty Coast Guardsmen and 1,300 civilians assigned to the service, said Lt. Cmdr. Scott McBride, a service spokesman. An additional 7,400 Coast Guard civilians are now on indefinite furlough.

The Coast Guard announced Friday that it will pay service members through Dec. 31, McBride said, reversing an even more serious situation. But any paycheck after that will require a new spending agreement. The last pay period for civilian employees ended Dec. 22.

Overall, about 420,000 government employees are working under the promise they will be paid retroactively, with another 350,000 on furlough at home.

The situation has grown increasingly frustrating for many Coast Guard family members, several of whom said they are angry they are being treated differently than the rest of the military. With many assignments in expensive coastal areas, service members rely not only on paychecks but also now-frozen government housing allowances that supplement income.

“The fact that I now have to worry that our bills are paid on time because Congress and everyone else waited until the last minute to do this is frustrating,” said Jenilee Stoltz, who already cut back on Christmas presents this year because of expenses caused by the typhoons. “We’re out of luck. We’re out of options.”

Coast Guardsmen shied away from interviews, in line with the military’s tradition of keeping rank-and-file members away from political issues. But several military spouses, who do not face the same restrictions, said that if Trump and lawmakers cannot come to an agreement on the wall, they want a deal reached now to save service members from financial ruin. The Pay Our Coast Guard Act was introduced by Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., to do so in 2015 but did not get traction.

Natalie Daniels, the wife of a petty officer, said that when her family was reassigned to San Diego from Maine, they were struck by how much higher the cost of living was. The family, which includes four children, rents a small three-bedroom home for $2,600 per month.

“The fact that we are sitting here at this point is absurd,” said Daniels, who is finishing a bachelor’s degree. “There are Coast Guard pages on Facebook where women are saying, ‘I know there’s not a lot out there, but if someone needs diapers, let’s help them. Let’s set up a spreadsheet and help each other out.’ That’s the sad part. The government isn’t trying to help us.”

The service will remain deployed during the shutdown and carry out operations that include law enforcement, search and rescue, port security and environmental response, McBride said. Other “nonessential” operations will be delayed or curtailed, including recreational boating safety checks, fisheries enforcement patrols and routine maintenance on maritime navigation aids.

The Coast Guard’s situation has stirred up old feelings that the service’s contributions are not as appreciated in Washington as the rest of the military’s.

In some corners, it also has undermined good will that Trump established with the service by spotlighting hurricane relief, praising its “brand” and promising to fund icebreaker ships that have been requested to boost polar security. Funding for the ships is now in flux, with the Senate version of an appropriations bill including $750 million to begin construction on the first new ship. The House version does not include the money, a symptom of trying to find money for Trump’s wall.

Brooke Kuczka, whose husband is a petty officer assigned in Mobile, Alabama, said she was upset to see Trump tweet Thursday without evidence that most of the people not getting paid through the shutdown are Democrats.

“A lot of people in the military are traditionally Republican, so I can’t believe he said that,” she said. “It’s bananas that the people working down on the border right now are the ones not getting paid right now.”

Ashley Totten, who lives with her petty officer husband near Houston, said she does not care whether someone is a Republican or Democrat, as long as they advocate for her family. She stays at home taking care of a son who has multiple heart defects.

“We are already stressed out worrying about if he will need open-heart surgery or not,” she said. “That deserves my attention, not trying to figure out how long we are okay without money coming in.”

Several Coast Guard family members said the situation has been compounded by USAA, a financial services firm that provides banking and insurance to about 11 million people with connections to the military.

During previous government shutdowns, the company offered zero-interest payroll advance loans to service members, who were required to pay the money back when the government reopened. This time, USAA decided to instead offer loans with a minimum amount of $2,500 and an annual percentage rate of 0.01.

“We have been with USAA for 14 years now, and we actually have started the process of moving away from them,” said Kristin Kuzik, whose husband is stationed on the Saginaw River in Michigan. “We were very disappointed that they did not have our backs and would not allow us to defer loans.”

A USAA spokesman, Matthew Hartwig, said the company understands “the angst many Coast Guard families are feeling during this shutdown.” USAA decided to “redesign” its offerings to offer affected service members 12 months to pay back the money with a loan, rather than requiring them to do so immediately.

“The product we are offering now is meant to be more flexible,” Hartwig said. “It would be available to other active-duty service members in the other branches of the military if they were facing a pay disruption. There is a new reality of potentially recurring or prolonged government shutdowns.”

Kuzik said she is grateful that members of her church pooled $340 for food and gasoline gift cards when they heard how the shutdown would affect their family. Not everyone is that lucky, she said.

“To me, this is a crisis right now for people,” she said. “They’re strapped, and we don’t know when the pay is going to come.”

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