The day before President Donald Trump announced a deal to temporarily reopen the federal government after the longest shutdown in United States history, Golden Triangle agencies publicly asked for community donations to help local federal employees who have gone for more than a month without pay.
The Columbus Lowndes Chamber of Commerce announced Thursday it is seeking gift cards to donate to the 10 Transportation Security Administration workers at the Golden Triangle Regional Airport.
Chamber President Lisa James said the Chamber can only donate gift cards because TSA ethics laws forbid giving agents cash.
“At places like Walmart they can get food or groceries if they need underwear, toilet paper, gas, detergent — they can get anything there,” James said. “They cannot provide Visa gift cards, cash or checks, so if anyone provides those, I will use them to buy restaurant gift cards, Walmart gift cards or Kroger gift cards.”
Friday afternoon at a White House press conference, Trump announced a deal with Congress to temporarily open the government for three weeks until politicians can reach a bipartisan deal for a spending bill that will include funding for a wall or steel barrier at the country’s southern border.
During the three weeks, government employees who were furloughed will receive back pay “as soon as possible,” Trump said.
Friday is the 35th day of the shutdown.
James did not immediately answer a call from The Dispatch asking how the president’s announcement affects the donations. She previously told The Dispatch the Chamber is accepting donations at its office at 1102 Main St. through Feb. 1, when it plans to deliver them to the airport.
James said gift cards for the TSA agents can also be delivered to GTRA Director Mike Hainsey’s office.
“We know this won’t help them pay the bills,” James said Thursday, “but it’s a little something that we can do to try to contribute.”
James said the Chamber reached out to the Greater Starkville Development Partnership and the West Point-Clay County Growth Alliance for regional assistance in the drive on Thursday afternoon.
The United Way of Lowndes County and Building Bridges of Hope are also working together to collect gift cards for affected workers.
Glenda Buckhalter, community outreach coordinator for the city of Columbus and officer and director for Building Bridges of Hope, said the organizations are looking to deliver cards on Wednesday.
Buckhalter told The Dispatch Friday she intends to continue collecting donations for now.
“Even though the workers are going to get back pay, we don’t know when that will be,” she said. “We’ve had a few donations come in already today and we’re going to make sure we get those to the workers.”
Buckhalter said she learned about the TSA workers at GTRA about a week ago, along with 28 Columbus and Lowndes County residents who are federal workers at a prison in Aliceville, Alabama.
“The USDA has some as well,” she said. “So it’s close to 50 people, if not right at 50. We wanted to reach out and do what we could for them. A lot of them are parents and they’re traveling. They have bills and they have to pay for things. We might not be able to pay a light bill or a mortgage but we can get them gas and food.”
Buckhalter said gift cards can be delivered to her office at 1607 Main St. or the United Way office at 223 Second St. N.
Hainsey told The Dispatch on Friday afternoon that TSA workers should get back pay in the wake of the deal to reopen the federal government. However, he said it’s hard to known when the pay will come, as it depends on lawmakers authorizing the back pay through legislation.
‘It’s a sacrifice’
Hainsey said GTRA has been running smoothly through the shutdown, thanks in large part to the dedication of its TSA workers.
Though there have been reports nationally of airports facing delays due to TSA workers calling out while having to work without pay, Hainsey said that hasn’t been a problem at GTRA. He said the airport hasn’t seen any security-related delays since the shutdown began.
“Although at the beginning of January, the flight load was lighter,” he said. “But now we’re getting back up to being pretty full and we’re getting everything up and out on time.”
Hainsey said people have been chipping in to help the TSA agents, from giving them Walmart cards to buying them lunch. He said the airport’s agents hail from throughout the Golden Triangle.
Hainsey said he’s grateful for the community’s help. He noted that Atmos Energy has also been working to offer relief for agents who can’t make their payments.
He said he’s also thankful to the TSA agents who continue to work without pay.
“It’s a sacrifice,” he said. “You’re putting gas in the car to come to work and you only have so much money.
“I went through this in ’91 or ’92 when we had that shutdown in the military,” he later added. “I know what’s it’s like to have to prioritize what bill you’re going to pay. I also know that everyone — the banks, everyone else understood that they’re going to get paid. They’ll get paid whenever the government people get paid. But you know, the uncertainty is scary.”
Alex Holloway was formerly a reporter with The Dispatch.
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