WYSO

Airport Contractors Feel Sting Of FAA Shutdown

Aug 3, 2011
Originally published on August 11, 2011 1:07 pm

The stalemate in Congress over funding for the Federal Aviation Administration means the suspension of more than 200 airport expansion and renovation projects around the country, which is putting tens of thousands of people out of work.

Electrician Richard Zemlok is one of 60 engineers and contractors who were laid off in Oakland, Calif., as a result of the dispute.

He's no stranger to layoffs. A taut, barrel-chested man in his 50s, Zemlok spent 22 years at a local Toyota assembly plant before it was shut down last year.

He says he hasn't seen much work since then. So he was relieved when he got a job helping build a new air traffic control tower at Oakland International Airport. Among other things, it meant Zemlok could keep his union medical coverage.

"Our work, our hours on the job relate to our medical payments. My medical is about $1,400 a month, and if I'm not working then that has to be paid by somebody, or else I don't have medical coverage for me and my family," he says.

But after only a month on the job, he got the word that the project was temporarily shutting down.

"I couldn't believe it," he says. "You know, I just got out here after 10 months of going through this stuff and here's a one-year project and it's like, 'Sorry, no job. Go on home.' "

Hurting Communities

Zemlok laughs, but there's no smile on his weathered face. He's standing at the shuttered gate of the job site. It's just a stone's throw from the skeleton of a 236-foot, state-of-the-art air traffic control tower.

"I just want a job; I just want to go to work; I want to be productive," he says. "I don't want to sit home. I want to pay my bills; I want to pay my taxes. I want to do what's right for America."

"I'm trying to do the right thing, and it seems everywhere you turn something gets shut down for some political reason," he says.

Oakland's frozen airport project is one of five in Northern California and many, many more across the nation that add up to more than $10 billion of lost work.

For Oakland Mayor Jean Quan, this work stoppage delays a key component of her plan to encourage tourism, especially from China.

"If we can't expand and modernize our port and make it more efficient for more flights to come into Oakland, that will hurt our goal of increasing tourism long run," she says. "It hurts immediate jobs; it hurts long-term jobs. And it's not necessary. There's no reason why Congress can't move this forward and why they shouldn't have moved it forward months ago."

'No Way To Treat People'

In a teleconference Wednesday, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said working Americans are bearing the brunt of the congressional stalemate.

"This is not the way to treat people who have worked very hard," he said. He noted that the construction sector has been particularly hard hit.

Ashley Davidson, 24, knows that firsthand. She's a first-year electrician's apprentice. She thought the skill would guarantee her work and a career.

Now Davidson wonders why Congress can't do its job. She says she thinks Congress doesn't get it.

"People who aren't middle class, who don't really know what it is to work a good, hard day, people who have no concept of what it's like to be without health care — who have no concept of what it is to work hourly, to work paycheck to paycheck."

As it stands, Davidson and her fellow workers won't be back on the job at least until September when Congress returns from its recess.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

MICHELE NORRIS, host: And now to the impact of the FAA shutdown on private sector workers. As we mentioned, hundreds of airport expansion and renovation projects are on hold. And that means tens of thousands of workers are idled.

NPR's Richard Gonzales reports on one suspended project in Oakland, California.

RICHARD GONZALES: Electrician Richard Zemlok is no stranger to lay-offs. A taut, barrel-chested man in his 50's, Zemlock spent 22 years at a local Toyota assembly plant before it was shut down last year. He says he hasn't seen much work since then. So he was relieved when he got a job helping build a new air traffic control tower at Oakland's International Airport. Among other things, it meant Zemlock could keep his union medical coverage.

RICHARD ZEMLOCK: Our work, our hours on the job relate to our medical payments. Our medical - my medical is about $1,400 a month, and if I'm not working, then that has to be paid by somebody, or else I don't have medical coverage for me and my family.

GONZALES: But after only a month on the job, he got the word that the project was temporarily shutting down. Zemlock is one of 60 engineers and contractors who were laid off here in Oakland as a result of the congressional dispute over funding the FAA.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ZEMLOCK: I couldn't believe it. You know, I just got out here after 10 months of going through this stuff. And here's a one year project and it's like, sorry, no job, go on home.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GONZALES: Zemlock laughs but there's no smile on his weathered face. He's standing at the shuttered gate of the job site. It's just a stone's throw from the skeleton of a 236-foot state of the art air traffic control tower.

ZEMLOCK: I just want a job. I want to go to work. I want to be productive. I don't want to sit home. I want to pay my bills. I want to pay my taxes. I want to do what's right for America. And I'm trying to do the right thing, and it seems like everywhere you turn something gets shut down for some political reason.

GONZALES: Oakland's frozen airport project is but one of five in Northern California. Many, many more across the nation add up to more than $10 billion of lost work. For Oakland Mayor Jean Quan, this work stoppage delays a key component of her plan to encourage tourism, especially from China.

Mayor JEAN QUAN: If we can't modernize and expand our port and make it more efficient for more flights to come into Oakland, that will hurt our goal of increasing tourism long run. It will hurt immediate jobs. It hurts long term jobs. And it's not necessary. There's no reason why Congress can't move this forward and why they shouldn't have moved it forward months ago.

GONZALES: In a teleconference Wednesday, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said its clear that working Americans are bearing the brunt of the congressional stalemate.

Secretary RAY LAHOOD: This is not the way to treat people who have worked very hard - people particularly in the construction trades, which has one of the highest unemployments of any sector of our economy. Almost double the unemployment rate is in the construction sector.

GONZALES: Twenty-four year old Ashley Davidson knows that firsthand. She's a first year electrician's apprentice who thought it would be a skill that would guarantee her work and a career. Now, Davidson wonders why Congress can't do its job.

ASHLEY DAVIDSON: People who aren't middle class, who don't really know what it is to work a good hard day; who have no concepts of what its like to be without health care, no concept of what it is to work hourly, to work paycheck-to-paycheck.

GONZALES: You think they don't get it?

DAVIDSON: I do. I think they don't get it and I think they don't care.

GONZALES: As it stands, Davidson and her fellow workers won't be back on the job at least until September, when Congress returns from its recess.

Richard Gonzales, NPR News, Oakland. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.