OAKLAND -- Scores of local airport construction workers either laid off or on furlough hoped to go back to work after Congress agreed on a debt ceiling deal Tuesday, but were crushed to find no end to a partial shutdown of the Federal Aviation Administration.
Though air traffic controllers are still guiding pilots across the sky, construction projects and efforts to modernize or expand airports have been on hold since July 23, when the agency's authorization from Congress expired.
Frozen Bay Area projects include a new air traffic control tower in Oakland and seismic work at airports in Livermore and Palo Alto.
"Politics and recesses are at the heart of these decisions," said Pete Figueiredo, treasurer
"Meanwhile, our people are making decisions between making rent or mortgage payments and putting food on the table tonight. I question whether (members of Congress) have the capacity to understand those kinds of decisions."
Oakland Mayor Jean Quan said the shutdown is affecting her city. "Tourism, with the low dollar, is one of our few growing industries. If we can't modernize our airport and make it more efficient to have flights going in and out, it slows that growth."
About 4,000 FAA employees and an estimated 70,000 to 80,000 construction workers are going without work nationwide. The FAA reports it issued stop-work orders at almost 250 projects, freezing about $10.5 billion in spending.
Congress has passed FAA funding extensions 20 times since the last long-term authorization expired in 2007. But in what Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., speaking on the Senate floor Tuesday, called "another made-up crisis by the Republicans" that echoed tactics used in the debt-ceiling debate, an extension recently passed by the Republican-controlled House of Representatives included significant changes to unions' rights and subsidies for rural airports.
That bill didn't pass in the Democratic-controlled Senate, and the result was a stalemate unlikely to see any movement until Congress comes back from recess after Labor Day.
The political details don't matter to Rich Zemlok, a 35-year veteran electrician who had been working on the Oakland tower after 10 months without work. The $31 million project funded by federal stimulus money broke ground in October but stands only about one-third finished, an airport spokesman said.
Zemlok and about 65 other workers at the site have been without work since the freeze, he said.
"They told us on Friday not to come in on Monday," he said. "I have a daughter in college. I need a job. I need to stay busy. But because of the political atmosphere, I got my job shut down."
After decades in the business, Zemlok said, the company he worked for shut down when the NUMMI auto plant in Fremont closed in April 2010.
The plant had given his company 95 percent of their work, Zemlok said, and he was unable to find another job until landing work at the airport almost a year later.
"And I'm one of the lucky ones," he said. "A lot of guys I know are going years without anything."
A lifelong construction worker, Zemlok said he's not interested in staying at home and collecting unemployment; he wants to work.
"But I'm running out of places to turn here," he said. "It's horrible."
Ashley Davidson, 24, is a first-year apprentice electrician who was also called off the Oakland project.
"I did all the 'right things' you're supposed to do out of high school," she said. "I went to college for a couple years. But I didn't find anything I was learning would guarantee me a job."
She said she hopes to make electrical work her career after struggling through jobs that paid low wages and left her without any health insurance.
That can't happen if she can't learn the craft on the job, she said.
Davidson and other workers are unlikely to see work for at least another month. Representatives for several Bay Area lawmakers said a new deal isn't expected to be on the table until both houses return from recess in September.
Contact Sean Maher at 510-208-6430.