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“The system became less safe”: air traffic controller affected by shutdown will attend State of the Union

Trisha Pesiri-Dybvik describes how the government shutdown hurt her family and the safety of the national airspace.

Air traffic controller Trisha Pesiri-Dybvik (second from left) will attend the State of the Union as Sen. Kamala Harris’s guest.

More than 14,000 air traffic controllers were affected by the recent 35-day partial government shutdown. Some were furloughed, others worked without pay, and all went without paychecks during this time.

Trisha Pesiri-Dybvik, a Californian who’s working to rebuild her family’s home after it was destroyed in the 2017 Thomas Fire, is among the air traffic controllers who fielded growing uncertainty as the impasse continued. Pesiri-Dybvik will be attending the State of the Union as the guest of Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) Tuesday, and she has a clear message for all lawmakers: No more shutdowns, please.

“Each day that the shutdown continued, the system became less safe,” Pesiri-Dybvik said in an interview. “There are so many different critical layers of the equation that were slowly being peeled away.”

Pesiri-Dybvik emphasized that the shutdown — which was longer than any in US history — gravely endangered the safety of the nation’s airspace as already short-staffed air traffic controllers grappled with hefty workloads and financial stress. Her family, including her three children, were also hit especially hard by the fallout because she and her husband are both air traffic controllers and neither received any pay for roughly a month.

Air traffic controllers were some of the employees who were most visible during the shutdown and they were also seen as playing a pivotal role in ending it. After a spike in their absences delayed flights at a series of major Northeastern airports, Trump reportedly felt a heightened pressure to reopen the government. Pesiri-Dybvik emphasized that these absences showed just how much the shutdown was hurting air traffic controllers overall, noting that it was not a testament to their dedication to the work itself.

A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.

Li Zhou

Why are you interested in attending the State of the Union?

Trisha Pesiri-Dybvik

Aviation safety is a nonpartisan issue, and we just want Congress to keep it on the forefront and not have it be a partisan issue. It is its own entity. We want members of Congress to work together to ensure that another shutdown doesn’t happen.

My family recently lost our home in the Thomas Fire, and it’s the opportunity to represent the thousands of people in California that have been affected by that. And both my husband and I are federal employees, so to represent the federal employees and my National Air Traffic Controllers Association brothers and sisters that were affected by this shutdown as well.

It’s a long process to gain stability [after the fire] and rebuild our home. We literally had the clothes on our backs. My husband and I are both air traffic controllers, both federal employees, so for neither one of us to be receiving a paycheck during the shutdown was very stressful.

Li Zhou

When the shutdown first started, did you have any sense of what to expect or what to plan for?

Trisha Pesiri-Dybvik

That was probably the most fearful thing for us. It could have been for an indefinite period of time. Any person could weather a storm for a short while or if they had an end time in sight, then they could prepare for that. But, to know that it could have potentially been for a year, that was terrifying for us.

No one knew when they would be getting a paycheck. Not many American families can sustain working a full-time job and not getting paid for it, while also having to provide for your family.

Li Zhou

You spoke with lawmakers during the shutdown. How did you feel about their response?

Trisha Pesiri-Dybvik

Typically you get an indication when you’re out there on the Hill [of how things will go], but the indication was not moving in one direction or another. And that was the first time I had experienced that kind of uncertainty in the work that I do. They were at a standoff, a standstill and it didn’t seem like there was a clear path to a resolution.

Li Zhou

How did the shutdown affect your family’s plans to rebuild after the Thomas Fire?

Trisha Pesiri-Dybvik

It basically froze what we were doing. We were apprehensive to make any decisions going forward with any portion of the rebuild. And still, the looming February 15 date is hanging over our heads.

My husband and I have combined nearly 40 years of federal service and typically we have very stable careers. And it just hangs over our heads. We’ve had tons of discussions about what things would look like in the future and what we would have to do differently, and whether or not we could rebuild, if at all.

Li Zhou

Do you think there needs to be some kind of policy that prevents shutdowns from happening at all?

Trisha Pesiri-Dybvik

Yes. The National Airspace System needs stable and predictable funding. The stop-and-go funding that we’ve had in the past is unacceptable. It doesn’t work for the system. The make-up time that we’ll have to do to compensate for what we just went through, it’s going to take us years to recover, just to get back to where we were. It’s no longer an option for us.

Li Zhou

How did you see the shutdown affect the safety of the National Airspace System?

Trisha Pesiri-Dybvik

Each day that the shutdown continued, the system became less safe. There are so many different critical layers of the equation that were slowly being peeled away.

There wasn’t any preventative maintenance happening in the system. And the workload increased for the air traffic controllers that were working at the time.

Li Zhou

What did you see as the psychological effect of the shutdown on air traffic controllers?

Trisha Pesiri-Dybvik

You want your air traffic controllers going to work and being 100 percent. And anytime you have outside stressors, if you’re concerned about your financial stability, it’s human nature to have that stress carried with you to work.

Every controller was different and had a different scenario but ultimately one way or another they were impacted, whether it was them or the person working with them. They all interconnect and work as a high-functioning team. If your team isn’t functioning at 100 percent, you’re missing out on the normalcy of what the day-to-day operations should be like.

Those stressors become problematic on top of workload. You’ve got the psychological part where you’re worried about not getting paid, or you’re worried about your coworkers who can’t buy gas to get to work or insulin for their children.

Li Zhou

On the last day of the shutdown, you saw all these delays at different airports. And there was reporting that they played a large role in Trump’s decision to reopen the government. I was wondering what you make of air traffic controllers’ role in ending the shutdown?

Trisha Pesiri-Dybvik

As far as our organization goes, air traffic controllers are professionals and we have a responsibility when we are fatigued or overstressed — when we know we’re not 100 percent ready to work — we have an obligation to not go to work. So there’s that component on top of the 30-year low staffing shortage that we’re currently experiencing, where we’re already very light in numbers of air traffic controllers.

So you add in the fatigue of the overtime that was being worked, the stress that the shutdown caused, and those are all factors that play a role. I think on a national level, our sick leave actually went down during the shutdown because people are so dedicated to the mission of serving the flying public.

I know there’s a ton of speculation surrounding that, but I know from the NATCA perspective, from being an air traffic controller myself, that there’s so much pride in what we do, there was no mal-intent there.

Li Zhou

Do you think the president should stop using shutdowns as a form of political leverage?

Trisha Pesiri-Dybvik

I don’t think the government, in any capacity, at any level, should lean toward a shutdown to fix any political dispute. It’s unacceptable.

Li Zhou

Are you or your family doing anything to prepare for a future shutdown?

Trisha Pesiri-Dybvik

We once thought that we had stable careers. That was really the guiding light that got us through the Thomas Fire. I kept going back to, “Thank God we have stable jobs to rebuild our life.” This has changed that.

That safety net of being secure has been ripped away from us.