Coast Guard pension checks in jeopardy as government shutdown continues

By Anna Gunther

/ CBS News

Hundreds of thousands of federal workers including members of the Coast Guard have been working without pay for weeks during the partial government shutdown. If the government isn't fully back up and running by the end of the month, Coast Guard retirees will miss their first pension check on February 1.

Unlike active duty members, retirees only get paid once a month. Payments for January were processed, but if the shutdown continues, 50,000 retirees will miss their February benefit payment, Coast Guard Chief Warrant Officer Barry Lane told CBS News.

"It's really a slap in the face to have spent 22 years in the Coast Guard serving my nation and doing what I, certainly what I like to do, but then to be told, 'Well sorry, you just aren't going to get paid,'" said Mike Wade, of Davenport, Washington.

Wade, who retired as a lieutenant commander, said his pension check is his main source of income, helping to pay for everything from his mortgage to utilities and food. The 75-year-old said he has savings and managed to budget some money aside, but if the shutdown impacts a second payment, he will be "hurting just like everyone else."

"The Coast Guard has been kicked around like a political football for many years," Wade said. "That puts us in a very vulnerable position when they start playing these games like they are now with the government shutdown."

Benefits for military Coast Guard retirees differ depending on length of service. In general, retirees who served for 20 years are eligible for 50 percent of base pay, with an additional 2.5 percent added for each additional year of service.

Retirement benefits for military members of the Coast Guard require an appropriation from Congress, unlike most other federal retirement plans, which are held in a trust. Civilian Coast Guard retirees will continue to receive payments, since their benefits are processed by a separate federal agency and not subject to a lapse in funding.

Coast Guard families feeling the financial strain as shutdown drags on

The shutdown is impacting Coast Guard families beyond retirees. About 42,000 active-duty Coast Guard members missed their first paycheck on January 15.

The Coast Guard is the only branch of the military impacted by the shutdown because it falls under the Department of Homeland Security, not the Department of Defense, which is still funded.

In recent weeks, Coast Guard families have been forced to turn to food drives and pantries to keep their families afloat, a situation the Coast Guard's top officer called "unacceptable." In a video posted to Twitter Tuesday, Adm. Karl Schultz thanked Coast Guard members for their "resilience," but said they "should not be expected to shoulder this burden."

"Continue to stand tall. Your dedication, resilience through this adversity defines the absolute best of our nation," Schultz said.

Your Coast Guard leadership team & the American people stand in awe of your continued dedication to duty, resilience, & that of your families. I find it unacceptable that @USCG members must rely on food pantries & donations to get through day-to-day life. #uscg pic.twitter.com/TZ9ppUidyO

— Admiral Karl Schultz (@ComdtUSCG) January 23, 2019

Veterans organizations trying to help Coast Guard members have also felt the burden of the shutdown. The American Legion has been distributing grants of up to $1,500 to eligible active-duty members in need. The Temporary Financial Assistance grants are designed to cover everyday expenses. So far this year, $574,000has been distributed. The program only has an annual budget of $700,000.

The American Legion is asking for donations to try and fulfill additional grant requests.

"We know this furlough is creating hardship, and we don't want the brave members of our Coast Guard, who are risking their lives defending us daily, to worry about putting food on the table. Most importantly, we don't want to have to turn away anyone who needs help," American Legion National Commander Brett Reistad said Tuesday in a statement.

Lawmakers in the House and Senate have introduced legislation to pay Coast Guard members during the shutdown, but so far the bills haven't moved forward.

A sign thanking Coast Guard service members in Alameda, California, on Jan. 14, 2019. KPIX

First published on January 25, 2019

© 2019 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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