BOSTON — Tens of thousands of members of the U.S. Coast Guard are working without pay as a partial federal government shutdown enters its fourth week, and lawmakers on Beacon Hill are considering the unusual step of writing checks to those living in Massachusetts.
"It's a public safety issue," said Sen. Diana DiZoglio, D-Methuen, primary sponsor of the bill that would have the state pay federal government employees. "These people are out there protecting us and they need to get paid."
Under the proposal, the state would cover members of the Coast Guard in Massachusetts until the shutdown is over, then send the federal government a bill to recoup its losses.
"We need to do everything we can to help Coast Guard members and their families, who are struggling to get through this, through no fault of their own," said DiZoglio.
It's not clear how much money would be required, or whether there is support for the measure among House and Senate leadership. The Coast Guard has bases along the coast, including in Gloucester and Newburyport. It employs more than 2,000 active duty members and reservists in the state.
At the Coast Guard station in Boston, civilian volunteers are providing food and other necessities to Coast Guard members who are working without pay, beginning this week.
"The impact of the shutdown is devastating," said Don Cox, president of the Massachusetts Military Support Foundation, which organized the food pantry. "We're asking these people to go risk their lives to rescue people, and they're not getting paid for it. Something is wrong with this picture."
The Coast Guard is not like branches of the military within the Defense Department but is technically part of the Department of Homeland Security. It is therefore the only service obliged to work without guaranteed pay during the current shutdown. The other branches remain funded amid the impasse between President Donald Trump and Congress over funding for a border wall.
Cox, who has been through several other government shutdowns, said he isn't sure the state has the legal authority to assume payroll responsibilities for a federal agency.
"It's a great idea but I can't fathom how they're going to pull that one off," he said. "I honestly hope they can do it, because these kids deserve every dime they can get."
Republican Gov. Charlie Baker said his administration is looking at ways to provide relief for federal workers affected by the shutdown, possibly through the state's unemployment insurance system, but said there are "a lot of complexities" that would need to be worked out.
"We might have to appropriate funds to do it, which is problem No. 1," he told reporters Monday. "The other issue is how do we charge the federal government for paying benefits to their employees and contractors."
Baker reiterated calls for the White House and Congress to resolve the impasse.
"This has dragged on way too long," he said. "They need to get together and not leave until they have a deal, so that people don't have to worry about whether or not they'll be able to put food on the table."
Roughy 800,000 federal employees — out of a workforce of 2.1 million — are in unpaid status due to the partial shutdown. Of those, about 380,000 have been furloughed. The rest are required to report to work.
There are more than 45,000 federal government employees in the state, according to the Massachusetts Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development. The state agency said nearly 800 federal workers — about 10 percent of the state's affected workforce — have filed claims for unemployment benefits since the shutdown began.
Besides the Coast Guard, federal workers affected by the impasse include Secret Service agents, air traffic controllers, food safety inspectors, airport security screeners, National Park staff and employees of the Internal Revenue Service.
Federal employees are required to report for work if their jobs are national security-related or if they perform activities intended to "protect life and property."
Nationwide, the shutdown could affect 42,000 working guardsmen and 1,300 civilians assigned to the service. Another 7,400 Coast Guard civilian employees are on furlough.
The Trump administration made an emergency payment last month to fund active-duty members of the Coast Guard, but that one-time payment expired Dec. 31.
Coast Guard members were expected not to receive their scheduled paycheck on Tuesday.
Cox's foundation has collected donations from the public and businesses such as Ocean State Job Lot and Shaw’s Supermarkets. It has created a GoFundMe campaign to solicit donations.
In Washington, the shutdown appeared no closer to resolution Monday, with Republican President Trump and congressional Democrats still locked in a standoff over funding.
Trump wants $5 billion for the wall, telling reporters at a briefing he’ll keep the government closed for "months or years" to get the money.
Newly sworn-in members of the Democratic-led House of Representatives have approved several measures to reopen the government without funding for the border wall. But the legislation is unlikely to advance in the GOP-controlled Senate, and Trump has vowed to veto a bill without the money.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat, has filed a bill in Congress to pay active-duty Coast Guard personnel during this government shutdown, and any future ones.
Admiral Karl Schultz, commandant of the Coast Guard, wrote in a blog post that despite the shutdown the guard is "deployed, standing the watch, and committed to supporting the mission."
"Uncertainty fuels anxiety and requires strong and steady leadership navigating forward," Schultz wrote. "Now is the time to 'lead through leaders' and I call on you to be intrusive leaders at your respective units, demonstrating empathy, conveying key information, and identifying and ensuring our most vulnerable shipmates get the assistance they need."
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.