SOUTHWEST HARBOR — The U.S. Coast Guard has only been a separate government entity since 1915, but mariners in peril at sea have looked to the service and its predecessor organizations, the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service and the U.S. Lifesaving Service, for assistance since at least the American Revolution.
Now, with the partial shutdown of the federal government entering its fourth week, the Coast Guard, or at least its personnel, civilian employees and their families, are in trouble and the “Coasties” will be getting aid from an unanticipated source.
On Saturday, Jan. 26, members of the Mount Desert Island community will hold a “BYOB” potluck dinner, “open mic” and silent auction to benefit area Coast Guard families affected by the partial government shutdown at the American Legion Hall, 22 Village Green Way in Southwest Harbor, from 5 to 10 p.m.
“I just really hate to think about people going to work for weeks and not getting paid,” Evelyn Harper, one of the event’s organizers and a resident of Southwest Harbor, said Monday. “A lot of people here live paycheck to paycheck in a seasonal community and sometimes it’s scary. These families travel from state to state and these kids are always leaving friends behind and maybe these families will always remember how special this community is.”
Despite the shutdown, which as of Monday showed no signs of ending, Coast Guard stations in Maine and throughout New England continue to operate, even though there is still no sign that personnel will be paid anytime soon.
In the fourth week of the partial government shutdown that began on Dec. 22, it has been reported that more than 470,000 employees of the government are working without pay. Others, including about 100 employees of Acadia National Park, are on furloughed leave until the government resumes operations.
With or without pay, the Coast Guard stations in New England, which include six in Maine, must perform essential duties such as search-and-rescue missions, port and homeland sea and safety and law enforcement in response to environmental emergencies.
“Anytime we have an issue with budget stuff, there are going to be people affected,” Petty Officer Third Class Zachary Hupp of the Coast Guard’s First District External Affairs Office in Boston said in an email.
“The Coast Guard, as a whole, is still working,” he said “Even if we’re not getting a paycheck, we’re going to take care of the things we need to.”
Although the Coast Guard is a branch of the United States military, like the Army or Air Force, its operations are funded by the Department of Homeland Security budget rather than the budget of the Department of Defense.
Employees and reservists with the Coast Guard were told in December they would not receive pay for duties performed during that month because their department’s budget was not approved prior to the government shutdown. It was unclear whether Coast Guard and other government employees affected would receive a scheduled Jan. 15 paycheck or when they would receive retroactive pay for December, but it appeared unlikely.
That could be dire for Coast Guard personnel and their families, who will have missed two paychecks but who still must pay for rent, utilities, food and other normal living expenses.
On Monday, Jan. 14, the Coast Guard website still advised that the service would “encourage each member to work with their creditor(s) in this unique situation.” The Coast Guard published a letter to help personnel explain to creditors why they can’t pay their bills, but the website offers cold comfort, at best.
“Ultimately, the member is responsible for their financial obligations, and unfortunately creditors are under no obligation to provide relief,” the website says. That same rule also applies to court-ordered payments such as child support.
Despite the bleak situation, Hupp said seasonal aspects of the Coast Guard’s work make it possible to reallocate limited resources.
“We don’t change the pay,” Hupp said. “We just monitor where our resources can best be used … We are going to be still performing the duties that are necessary.”
Military pay, at least for enlisted personnel in the lower grades, is notoriously poor, so many Coast Guard families may already participate in certain financial aid programs.
On Monday, the Maine Department of Health and Human Services announced that individuals and families who participate in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) (known as Food Supplement in Maine) who received a SNAP benefit in January and were scheduled to receive the benefit again in February will receive that payment on Jan. 17. They will not receive another allotment in February.
SNAP is a federal program administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which provides nutrition assistance to eligible low-income individuals and their families.