The best part about Charlie Chapa’s job in the control room of the Anzalduas Dam is the view of the Rio Grande.
Working in the small rooms that line the dam, every day Chapa and his colleagues at the International Boundary and Water Commission bring water to the people and farmers of the Rio Grande Valley. They make sure both Mexico and the U.S. use the amount of water they’re supposed to, and when it rains hard enough, they open the floodgates.
Chapa is one of roughly 800,000 federal workers not getting paid during the partial government shutdown, which at 30 days, is now the longest in history
“I work pay check to paycheck,” he said before listing the bills he had coming up this month. Since he’s categorized as an essential employee, he still has to show up to work, which means paying for gas to fill his truck and food for his lunch break.
His colleague, Diego Rivera, is president of the local chapter of the American Federation of Labor, a worker’s union that represents federal employees. Rivera, who maintains equipment for IBWC, has been placed on furlough for the duration of the shutdown.
An American flag waves on a pole in front of Rivera’s home in Hidalgo. His dad is a Vietnam veteran and son is a marine. In his living room, he sits on a couch facing a large portrait of his daughter in her quinceañera dress, wearing a shirt that reads “#EndTheGovernmentShutdown.”
Rivera began working with IBWC in 2008, having previously worked as an industrial technician and in the West Texas oil refineries. He came looking for something close to home, something stable.
“We joined the federal government for stability, but it ended up being worse than the private sector,” Rivera said. “Only in the private sector, we could sue.”
Like Chapa, he’s had to cut down his spending the past few weeks. This week, that meant canceling a trip he planned to Dallas to attend his daughter’s cheerleading competition.
Instead, he’ll spend that time at home, trying to keep himself busy as he has for the past several weeks.
“Now I have the time, but not the money,” Rivera said.
Unlike Chapa, Rivera isn’t guaranteed back pay since he’s on furlough. In the meantime, Rivera (like many federal employees) has tried to file for unemployment benefits. But he must first provide documents from his employer. The problem is that the federal employees who manage those documents are (like Rivera) furloughed at his agency.
It’s even harder for Chapa to provide the necessary documents since he is still working. They would need to ask permission to apply for a part-time job, but the workers who handle those requests are also furloughed. If they decided to apply to similar jobs, such as a hydroelectric power plant, it could be deemed a conflict of interest and they could be terminated.
“And if I decide to look for a part-time job anyway, who’s going to hire me?” Rivera asked. “Who is going to invest in somebody that they know might only work for a few days?”
Part of Chapa’s job is to make sure there isn’t anything blocking the gates of the dam. If there is, he opens the gates to let it flow through. But if something were to get stuck, the maintenance staff wouldn’t be there to remove it.
“Thank God it hasn’t happened yet,” Chapa said.
Rivera hasn’t been able to maintain equipment along the levee as usual. If heavy rain were to come, he fears his agency won’t be prepared to deal with the rising waters.
“If we have a flood or another major rainfall, what’s going to happen?” Rivera asked, referencing the June 2018 flood that left much of the Valley under several feet of water. “If we’re shutdown, the job’s not getting done.”
‘Just an average Joe’
The shutdown comes as the Trump administration and the Democrat-led House fail to compromise on funding for the border wall. Chapa, who describes himself as “just an average Joe,” said he doesn’t usually meddle in politics. But as someone who works on the river every day, he thinks the administration is going about the issue the wrong way.
“Do I think there is a crisis on the border? No,” he said. “I see what’s going on there everyday.”
He said in the past five years the amount of crossings he’s witnessed has decreased dramatically. The entire time he’s been there he’s only seen one instance of violence. He feels more boots on the ground would be more effective than the wall.
Like Chapa, Rivera’s favorite part about his job is the scenery he sees along the river. Driving along the levee, he sees “the Valley the way it was meant to be seen.” He also doesn’t think a border wall is necessary, much less at the expense of federal workers.
However, some federal workers do agree with the decision. Garry Ballard, an electrician with IBWC, said he’s willing to be furloughed until the border wall is fully funded.
He’s worked with the agency for 36 years. Like Chapa and Rivera, he’s had to cut down on his spending too. Though he doesn’t have children at home anymore, he’s spoken to his major creditors about the shutdown and said most have been receptive.
No matter how long the shutdown lasts, Ballard said he’s ready to stick it out, even if it means taking out loans after dipping into his savings.
“If I have to be inconvenienced and go without a paycheck for a few weeks or a month even, I’ll be proud to do that to serve my country again,” the Navy veteran said. “If that’s what I have to do, I’ll do it.”
He said undocumented immigrants are “flooding this country,” and believes their presence in the country creates a financial burden that outweighs the cost of the shutdown.
“I’m proud of this country and I don’t want the way of life changed,” Ballard said.
This is Chapa and Ballard’s third government shutdown and Rivera’s second. It’s the longest in U.S. history, and the president has said he’s willing to prolong it for months, or even years.
It’s illegal for federal workers to strike. But without a paycheck, it’s only a matter of time until they’re left with no choice but to leave the jobs they’ve had for years.
“But who is going to do it?” they each asked.