Correctional officers at Atwater prison work without paychecks, due to shutdown

Like correctional officers across the country, employees at United States Penitentiary Atwater are working without paychecks while the federal government remains shut down, officials confirmed Thursday.

The shutdown began Dec. 22, but prison employees are exempt and must report to work if their “duties involve the safety of human life or the protection of property,” prison officials said in a short statement on Thursday.

Those employees will be paid for their time worked — but only after President Donald Trump and Congress resolve the lingering shutdown, prison officials noted. The president and Congress, primarily Democrats, are at odds over the funding of a border wall with Mexico.

The American Federation of Government Employees, the largest federal employee union, filed a lawsuit Monday against the Trump administration, alleging that the partial government shutdown is illegally forcing more than 400,000 federal employees to work without pay, the Washington Post reported.

The Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Prisons United States Penitentiary in Atwater, California. Pictured is the upstairs showing some of the typical general population unit exterior doors. Debbie Noda Merced Sun-Star file

“All the jobs that we think of as ‘traditional first responders’ are likely considered essential,” lead attorney Heidi Burakiewicz told The Washington Post, listing Border Patrol agents, law enforcement officers and federal firefighters as examples. “It’s outrageous the government expects them to work without knowing when they’ll get their next paycheck.”

If the shutdown continues, many prison employees won’t be able to pay their rent on time or make their monthly house payments, according to Aaron McGlothin, president of the Local 1237 of the American Federation of Government Employees Council of Prison Locals.

“We have people living paycheck to paycheck. We have single parents,” he said. “They can’t pay their rent, pay their grocery bill, put food on the table.”

The Office of Personnel Management put out guidelines for federal employees that included suggestions such as bartering with the landlord to do odd jobs in lieu of rent.

There are about 1,100 male offenders housed at USP Atwater. About 365 employees potentially have contact with inmates, according to the prison’s website.

The prison was placed on modified operations on Wednesday while staff investigated a potential threat to employees, officials said in a news release. The operations were not related to the government shutdown.

The institution is expected to return to normal operations as soon as practical. At no time was the public in danger, officials said.

The Fresno Bee contributed to this report.