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The entrance to one of the prisons at the Lompoc Federal Correctional Complex is shown in this Feb. 2, 2018 file photo. Employees at the prison are speaking out against the partial shutdown of the U.S. government, which has left them working without immediate pay.

With the partial shutdown of the U.S. government now in its third week, a representative of one of the largest federal employee groups in the region is speaking out about what he feels is a “political scheme” that has he and his colleagues feeling like “pawns.”

Justin Bender, executive vice president for the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) Local 4397, which is the union that represents the roughly 430 employees at the Lompoc federal prison, said that morale among staff at the penitentiary has dropped dramatically as workers face the prospect this week of missing out on their first full paycheck since the start of the shutdown.

Because they are deemed “essential,” the prison employees have still been required to work, though they have no idea when they will be paid again.

“It’s horrible,” Bender said of the work atmosphere at the prison. “It’s bad. Everyone is just in a crappy mood. We feel like unpaid interns, really.”

The shutdown began on Dec. 22, largely as a result of a battle between President Donald Trump, who wants funding to a build a wall along the southern U.S. border with Mexico, and Democratic leaders who don’t want to allocate funds for a border wall.

Bender said the merits, or lack thereof, of a wall is beside the point when it comes to his and his coworkers’ livelihoods. More than anything, he said, they feel like the federal government is “using us — they’re using all government employees as pawns for political gain, for whichever avenue they’re trying to accomplish.”

“It just sucks,” Bender said. “They went as far as to have Border Patrol go out there and endorse Trump. Well, they only have 16,000 employees. The Bureau of Prisons has 33,000 employees, but no one asks our opinion. Border Patrol and ICE want to go out there and act as if they support the shutdown, but if you have 16,000 people not getting paid, they don’t support not getting a paycheck.”

Compounding the diminished morale, Bender pointed out, is the danger that prison workers face each day.

That safety risk was highlighted on Jan. 4 when four staff members at a maximum-security federal prison in West Virginia were injured after an assault by an inmate.

While the main U.S. Penitentiary Lompoc facility is classified as medium-security, with a low-security satellite camp, Bender said those threats are still very real for the employees who report to work there each day.

“Prisons are already volatile, but when you start stepping up the classification level, (those employees) are still willing to go do their jobs knowing they could be injured or killed,” he said. “And we’re doing it for free. That’s what’s driving a lot of people crazy. It just blows me away that they would sacrifice government employees like this.”

That likely lack of a paycheck this week won’t only affect the current prison workers. According to Bender, retirees from the prison, including some whose retirement became effective just last month, also won’t be receiving payments.

Further, many of the employees, including those with seniority, who took leave over the holidays either changed their plans and stayed to work, or came back to their jobs sooner than planned, since there was no guarantee they’d receive back pay for any time off.

It is expected that employees who have been working will be reimbursed once the shutdown is over, but those who took leave may be considered on furlough status and are not guaranteed any payments.

Making matters even worse for some employees, Bender said, is the insult they felt when they received memos from the federal government’s Office of Personnel Management (OPM) that offered them advice on how to deal with landlords and creditors during this time of financial uncertainty.

According to sample letters that were posted on the OPM website, which the OPM later claimed were inadvertently posted and have since been edited, the agency suggested, among other things, that federal employees attempt to barter with their landlords to offer labor, such as painting or carpentry, in exchange for reduced rent.

“The crap the government is putting out to try to help us, it’s not helping us,” Bender said.

Employees at other prisons around the country are also speaking out against the shutdown and its ramifications. Among concerns that have been raised by workers is that prisons are already considered to be understaffed and this drop in morale is just adding to the danger level. Some have also taken issue with the fact that inmates who work menial jobs while serving their sentences are still receiving their payments.

“It sickens me to know these politicians would play politics ... with our staffers' livelihoods after working the most stressful job in America,” said Eric Young, president of the national prison workers union, according to USA Today.

Bender agreed with that assessment.

“The lawmakers and Congress people — the 500 some-odd people who are making these decisions for us — they’re still getting paid,” he said. “They’re getting paid six-digit salaries while they’re sitting here trying to figure out if we’re going to get paid, over stupid issues.”

A message seeking comment that was sent to a spokesperson for the federal Bureau of Prisons was not returned as of Tuesday afternoon. A message seeking comment from the OPM was also not returned.

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Willis Jacobson covers the city of Lompoc for Lee Central Coast Newspapers. Follow him on Twitter @WJacobsonLR.

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