Joshua Johnson is on high alert about how the U.S. funds its government.

Johnson, who works as an outside machinist at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery, is one of the state’s nearly 12,000 federal employees who miss out on paychecks whenever Congress can’t agree on a spending plan and the government shuts down.

He last worked at the shipyard without a paycheck for 35 consecutive days in 2018 and 2019. Congress has since avoided shutdowns by approving temporary funding agreements at the last minute, leaving Johnson and his coworkers perpetually on edge.

“It’s tiresome,” Johnson said. “There’s always a background level of stress.”

Portsmouth Naval Shipyard employees in Kittery are again under threat as a March 22 deadline to secure federal defense funding approaches. And Johnson, a single father living paycheck to paycheck, is afraid he’ll once again have to fight to take care of himself and his daughter.

“Historically, we typically do get (back pay). But when you’re talking about weeks without a paycheck, it’s weeks of having to juggle which utility are you able to pay for month-to-month? Do you choose your rent, do you choose your food?” he said.


But Johnson has some hope. An emergency bill taken up by the Legislature on Thursday could help ease that financial pain for Maine’s federal employees by allowing them to take out no-interest loans.

“It would give me a little peace of mind so that the next time we are on the verge of a shutdown, I know that I have that financial security,” Johnson said. “It would be a relief, and I think that it can bring that feeling to a lot of individuals who are federal employees.”

Under L.D. 2113, federal employees could apply for no-interest loans of up to $6,000 during a government shutdown that lasts more than two weeks. The loans would not be based on an employee’s creditworthiness. And employees wouldn’t have to start paying back those loans for at least 90 days, depending on how long the shutdown lasts. After 180 days, when the no-interest offer expires, a lender could request repayment of the defaulted loan from the Finance Authority of Maine. The authority, called FAME, would pay lenders back from a pool of $250,000 in state funding and recover funds directly from borrowers.

Johnson and over a dozen shipyard workers attended a public hearing at the State House on Thursday to urge the Health Coverage, Insurance and Financial Services Committee to quickly push the legislation through.

Sen. Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, introduced the bill after the federal government nearly shut down in October.

Maine has 11,855 federal civilian employees, according to the U.S. Office of Personnel Management. Roughly 40% of federal employees would have been furloughed last year, while the remaining 7,113 would have had to work unpaid. These federal employees work at the Office of Veterans Affairs and Department of Defense; at the airports as air traffic controllers and Transportation Security Administration officers; with the National Guard and national parks and food safety offices.

“As a state, our ability to do anything about federal government shutdown is very limited. But what we can do is make sure that workers in our state continue to have access to funds to pay their bills without going into massive debt,” Jackson said during Thursday’s public hearing.

The House voted to avert a partial shutdown on Wednesday, and the Senate must take up those bills by Friday night. And it could do the same later this month, when a defense spending plan is due. But it’s still stress-inducing for the nearly 4,000 employees at the shipyard near the Maine-New Hampshire border to go through this process time and time again.

“Every single one feels serious, because we never know when it’s going to actually shut down, especially for those of us that have seen it and have lived it,” said Alana Schaeffer, who also works at the shipyard and is president of the Metal Trades Council Local 788. “It makes it very, very difficult to focus on the mission when we’re worried about whether we’re going to get a paycheck. And that uncertainty, that fear, that anxiety directly affects our national security.”

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