OTISVILLE — Mark Morel and about 230 fellow workers at the federal prison here have been working steadily since the government shutdown began in December, knowing and dreading that their next paychecks wouldn't come if the border-wall standoff in Washington didn't end soon.
That day of reckoning finally came.
Along with more than 400,000 other federal workers who do vital tasks and must work without pay during a shutdown, employees of Otisville Federal Correctional Institution in western Orange County didn't get the biweekly paychecks they normally would have gotten on Saturday for the first time since funding for nine government departments dried up on Dec. 21.
Workers' anxiety about being able to pay their bills and related concerns had been building as the impasse dragged on. Morel, who has been a corrections officer in Otisville since 2006 and is president of its employees' union, had been digging for answers about whether their health insurance coverage was imperiled and if they could be taxed for missing loan repayments to their federal retirement fund. He also had relayed advice from the union about asking mortgage holders, landlords and utilities for leniency in paying bills.
"Guys are worried," Morel said. "Guys are going to have to make a decision soon: Are they going to put gas in the car to come to work?"
The Otisville prison has the largest group of federal workers in the area affected by the shutdown, which spared all departments that were funded before President Trump and congressional Democrats dug in over his insistence on $5.7 billion for a southern border wall. Across Orange County from the prison, several thousand employees at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and Stewart Air National Guard Base in Newburgh continued working without interruption or endangered pay.
But at least two small offices closed without funding — the Farm Service Agency office in Middletown and a Veterinary Services Endorsement Office in Rock Tavern. And at Stewart International Airport, employees of the Transportation Security Administration and Customs and Border Protection have had to continue working without pay.
As of last week, the federal complex in Otisville — not to be confused with the smaller state prison next door, known as Otisville Correctional Facility — housed 835 inmates, including 715 held in a medium-security prison and a detention center for suspects awaiting trial. The other 120 inmates were housed in a separate, minimum-security camp.
For workers there, the growing financial scare is compounding the usual stress of guarding prisoners, as well as the problems that severe under-staffing in the federal corrections system has caused, Morel said. He said that with staffing at around 60 percent, the federal government has increased the use of a policy known as augmentation, in which nurses, teachers, secretaries and others are assigned shifts as corrections officers to fill personnel shortages. There is also more overtime work: Morel put in a double shift of 16 hours on Thursday.
Morel, a 39-year-old Orange County native, Army veteran and father of two, said he and his wife can get by on her income and their savings for a while if the shutdown continues, perhaps going as long as three missed paychecks, without feeling the effects. But many of his co-workers live paycheck-to-paycheck, he said, and will face an immediate pinch that requires picking up second jobs.
He said he has been warning employees to prepare to miss at least two paychecks, but knows it will be hard.
"How long can anybody go to work in a prison or any other function without paychecks?" he asked.
Morel represents about 200 Otisville employees as president of Local 3860 of the Council of Prison Locals, a branch of the American Federation of Government Employees, or AFGE. AFGE has sued the Trump administration over the shutdown, arguing that forcing workers who are deemed essential to continue working without being paid is a violation of the federal Fair Labor Standards Act.
“Many of our employees struggle every day to make ends meet, and they cannot afford to miss even one paycheck,” AFGE President J. David Cox Sr. said in a press release on Thursday. “We are going to keep fighting for all the workers who are on the job, working without pay keeping our country safe, and all the other workers (who) are locked out of their jobs and unsure how they will continue to provide for themselves and their families."