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Local Coast Guard families decry shutdown's 'slap in the face' as they borrow to pay bills

Coast Guard spouse Emmalee Jones of Oldsmar, holding 1-year-old son Dawson, said her family may be hit hard if paychecks quit coming. Young families often suffer most from government shutdowns, said Brooke Gonzales of Trinity, whose husband has served 19 years in the Coast Guard. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]
Published Dec. 31, 2018

With no end in sight for a 10-day-old government shutdown, Coast Guard helicopter mechanic Bradley Jones prepared for an overnight shift on New Year's Eve worried that his family's mounting bills won't get paid.

Like more than 1,100 other Coast Guard personnel living and working in the Tampa Bay area, Jones, 26, got a temporary reprieve when the Trump administration and the service branch came up with a reported $75 million to fund paychecks due Jan 1. But beyond that, there are no guarantees. And for a force whose motto is Semper Paratus — Latin for "always ready" — the financial uncertainty is creating hardship and stress.

"It is aggravating that he is still expected to go to work, and we have to put gas in the car, but we don't know when the next paycheck will come," said Jones' wife, Emmalee Jones. The White House and Congress are at an impasse over President Donald Trump's demand for $5 billion toward a border barrier, freezing federal spending for many departments — including Homeland Security and its Coast Guard division — until a deal is brokered.

Funding for the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs, among others, was appropriated before the shutdown Dec. 21.

To make the Jan. 1 payroll for its 41,000 active-duty members and a select number of Reserve members, the Coast Guard used previously appropriated operational and support funding, said Chief Warrant Officer 3 Chad Saylor, a spokesman for the service.

"However, the service will require a fiscal year 2019 appropriation, a continuing resolution, or additional legislative funding actions to meet military payroll obligations" for the next checks, Saylor said in an email to the Tampa Bay Times.

The next paycheck for Coast Guard personnel was to come Jan. 15. Whether it does is a question that leaves many Coast Guard families worried.

Not knowing if it will, the Joneses had to apply for a loan to pay their bills.

"We are a one-income family," said Emmalee Jones, 23, who lives with her husband, a petty officer third class, and their 1-year-old child in Oldsmar. "I am a stay-at-home mom and a college student. This is financially stressful and very hard for so many families like us who live paycheck-to-paycheck."

Coast Guard spouse Brooke Gonzales of Trinity said the "fear of not getting paid in the future has really affected morale among members as well as families."

"Knowing that the Coast Guard somehow was able to fund the first paycheck of the year helped relieve some stress," said Gonzales, whose husband, Petty Officer Dave Gonzales, is an avionics electronics technician working on helicopters. "But the families have not changed the plans they had before we knew about the Jan. 1 paychecks."

Gonzales, 36, said her family of four "is still buckled down super tight to the point where we are not going grocery shopping every week. We also sat down with our kiddos and chatted with them regarding the shutdown and explained that we will have to put some of the fun things we had planned for winter break on hold."

An additional strain on their finances is the medication required by their special needs child, not all of it covered through the military's Tricare insurance program.

Still, Gonzales said she and her family are among the lucky ones.

Her husband, 41, has been in the Coast Guard for 19 years. They have seen politics block paychecks before.

"After our first shutdown, we realized we needed to have a backup plan," Gonzales said. "But we see a lot of younger families, fresh in the Coast Guard, who haven't experienced a shutdown and so they are struggling."

Gonzales once served as an ombudsman, the liaison between the Coast Guard and its families.

"I've seen so many talk about having to look at utilizing food pantries or going to discount stores to purchase food and toiletries, which is sad because our Coast Guard service men and woman are reporting daily to work, keeping our borders and waters safe" she said.

For the Jones and Gonzales families, who live with the sacrifice required by service to their country, having to worry about the next paycheck is "a slap in the face."

"Not only are they being neglected a paycheck," Emmalee Jones said, "but they are expected to continue their work schedule without any disturbance. Funding for the active duty Coast Guard members should not be put on hold for someone's political agenda."

Contact Howard Altman at haltman@tampabay.com or (813) 225-3112. Follow @haltman.

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