Coast Guard retirees, dependents set to miss first payment

As hundreds of thousands of federal government workers were preparing to miss another paycheck Friday, an additional 55,000 people — Coast Guard retirees and their dependents — soon may join the ranks of those feeling the effects of the longest government shutdown ever.

"As a recent retiree, I will be able to skip a paycheck and still pay my bills for the next month but will have to make some major adjustments if it goes into March," said Scott Epperson, 53, of Ledyard, a retired chief warrant officer. He retired from the Coast Guard in 2016 after 26 years in the service, and served in the Air Force for four years prior to that.

Without a resolution, about 43,000 retirees, and another 12,000 or so dependents — surviving spouses or other family members of deceased Coast Guard personnel — will not receive their monthly payment, usually paid on the first day of the month.

The Senate on Thursday failed to pass two measures to end the partial government shutdown — one included President Donald Trump's $5.7 billion demand for a border wall, and the other, proposed by Democrats, would've funded the government through Feb. 8 and did not include funding for the wall. It was not immediately clear what the next step would be.

"These are people who had expected, given they took the oath of office, that the government would meet their needs every month. It's an absolute break of faith of what they expected," said Gary Thomas, a retired Coast Guard commander based in the Washington, D.C., area.

In the case of survivors, their Coast Guard family member gave up a part of his or her pension every month to pay into a survivor benefit plan, so their survivor would have that money when he or she died.

"There are surviving widows of World War II vets that I'm aware of who will now lose a paycheck," Thomas said.

The Coast Guard spends about $120 million a month on these payments, said Thomas, who is a member of the Capital Area Coast Guard Retiree Council, which keeps retirees informed about happenings in the Coast Guard.

Robert "Bob" Young, 67, of Niantic, a retired Coast Guard captain, called the situation an "injustice."

"It's just a travesty to see people — active duty, retired — they've done what they've been asked to, and they're being held hostage for reasons that don't have anything to do with them," Young said.

Young called on federal lawmakers, including Connecticut's congressional delegation, to reopen the government and have a debate about immigration afterward.

"If this were to succeed as leverage for the president, six months from now it could be another agency. A year from now, another department. I think that's a dangerous precedent," he said.

The demographics of retirees differ from others impacted by the shutdown, Thomas said. While stories of furloughed workers getting another job to make ends meet until the shutdown is over have popped up around the country, "if you're a 75-year-old Vietnam vet, it's hard to take that second job," he said.

Retirees tend to be less mobile, so it may not be easy to get to a food bank like those that have been set up nationwide to aid furloughed workers and those working without pay.

Many retirees don't live in heavily populated areas, so they "don't have the community strength the way active-duty members and spouses do," Thomas said.

For retirees with disabilities, medical needs can take up a large percentage of their monthly income, and that could mean having to choose between paying for food or medication.

While Thomas has heard from retirees and their spouses about the impact on the shutdown on them, "not many of them want to talk because there's a lot of pride at stake," he said.

For updates from the Coast Guard on the shutdown, visit bit.ly/USCGbudget.

j.bergman@theday.com

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