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LI air traffic controllers get a break from shutdown stress

The federal workers say they are relieved the impasse is over for now, but not getting paid for a month was a major hardship for families.

Melissa Sestak and husband Tom. Both are air

Melissa Sestak and husband Tom. Both are air traffic controllers who have felt the financial squeeze imposed on their family by the government shutdown. Photo Credit: Sestak Family

Long Island air traffic controllers Tom and Melissa Sestak are relieved President Donald Trump and Congress reached a compromise to temporarily end the partial government shutdown.

"There is some relief that there will be instant relief," said Melissa Sestak, who works at Long Island MacArthur Airport in Ronkonkoma. "People will exhale, breathe, pay some bills, and we'll start worrying in about three weeks."

Melissa Sestak spoke Friday after wrapping up a six-day, 56-hour workweek. She said her family had dipped into their savings and was pinching every penny. The Sestaks, who live in Nesconset, have four children, one of whom is in college. Tom Sestak also works at MacArthur. 

“We have called all the creditors, saying, ‘We’ll pay you later.’ We are holding on to every dollar preparing for the worst. We have this limited pool of money,” Melissa said.

Randy Brown, the national airspace operational manager at New York Terminal Radar Approach Control in Westbury, an air traffic control center operated by the FAA, said while he is relieved the shutdown is over, he questioned why the move was ever necessary.

“This was a complete waste of time,” said Brown, a retired Air Force master sergeant. “This was totally unnecessary to put us workers through this.”

Melissa Sestak, 51, is the president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association at the Islip tower. Inside the tower, there are 21 air traffic controllers, about half of whom are certified and have enough training to do multiple jobs within the tower without supervision, she said. Tom Sestak, 53,  works out of the radar room at the airport, an air traffic control center that monitors flights along the Eastern Seaboard, Melissa said. About 300 air traffic controllers work at MacArthur, she  said.

 Before news of the compromise, Sestak said the stress from the shutdown was felt at home and at work, where "morale is low." 

“It’s like being in a state of constant agitation,” she said.

On Friday, the shutdown hit 35 days. Flights into LaGuardia Airport were delayed because of a shortage of air traffic controllers, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. MacArthur Airport Commissioner Shelley LaRose-Arken said there had been no shutdown-related delays at MacArthur.

Melissa Sestak, who has been an air traffic controller for 30 years, said she’s never seen a major airport face delays because air traffic controllers did not show up for work. Inside her tower, she said, nearly all of the employees had missed at least one shift because of the shutdown. She had encouraged her colleagues who didn’t feel up to the task to stay home.

“Each person has to make an internal assessment, and say, ‘Am I too stressed right now? Am I too agitated? Should I be working right now?'” she said before news of the compromise. “Let’s not put anybody at risk.”

With Robert Brodsky

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