Federal workers protest government shutdown in D.C.
WASHINGTON, D.C. — On the 20th day of the federal shutdown, federal workers and their allies gathered outside of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) office in Washington, D.C. and marched to the White House.
About 250 people gathered on Thursday to protest the shutdown of the government. Nearly 800,000 federal workers have been furloughed or forced to work without pay during the shutdown, which will be the longest in history if it continues past Friday.
Ben Struckus, who is with the Professional Aviation Safety Specialists (PASS), which is associated with the AFL-CIO and represents thousands of Federal Aviation Administration and Department of Defense employees, said the shutdown has been anxiety producing for his family. Struckus has two children to support.
“We’re trying to figure out when this is going to end and get some understanding of where we stand. There is a lot of uncertainty, a lot of inconsistent communications from our agencies. Our union is doing a great job of trying to get the message out as we work together with employees to end the shutdown.”
Struckus added that he is reaching for any support he can right now, including from family and federal credit unions offering low interest loans. He said he is seeking unemployment, which he said is a challenge, and looking for part-time work.
“I’m trying to get as creative as possible in a job that I thought was going to be stable,” he said.
About 4,500 people, made up both federal workers and federal contractors, have filed for unemployment due to the shutdown, Washington’s city government has estimated.
John, who is using a pseudonym for the purpose of his family’s privacy and did NOT want to name his agency, said he feels “demoralized.” He has been furloughed.
“I’d really like to go back to work,” he said. “I haven’t had any financial impact yet. The first paycheck that I should have gotten would be on Monday but I still have to pay rent and for my daughter’s day care. If the shutdown lasts we have to pay for day care for January and February and the financial impacts are starting to come home.”
Alex Jay Berman, who works for the IRS and is with the National Treasury Employees Union chapter in Philadelphia, said he will be scratching to make his and his wife’s car payments and other bills that will come at the middle of the month.
“The larger issue is that I cannot help my fellow Americans … That’s heartbreaking … It’s the lack of security that this shutdown, this lockout, is doing to America. I took an oath to the Constitution to protect and serve and I can’t do that,” he added.
On Wednesday, President Trump stormed out of a meeting with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) after she said she would not budge on funding the border wall that Trump had long insisted would be fully paid for by Mexico. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has also refused to allow a vote on measures that the president would not sign. Eight House Republicans voted with Democrats on Wednesday to reopen portions of the federal government that are not currently being funded, and two Republican senators have also broken with Trump to demand the government be reopened without concern for wall funding.
There have been federal worker protests in other areas of the country. About 150 federal workers in Philadelphia protested the shutdown on Tuesday, and federal workers in St. Louis rallied outside of their offices on Friday and Monday. In Boston, federal workers plan to hold rallies against the shutdown on Friday.
This week, the National Treasury Employees Union filed a lawsuit against the Trump administration for being forced to work without pay, representing two Customs and Border Protection officers. The union became the second federal employees union to file a shutdown-related lawsuit, following the American Federation of Government Employees’ lawsuit on behalf of essential workers forced to work during the shutdown without pay.
The lead attorney in the case for AFGE, Heidi Burakiewicz, was present at Thursday’s rally supporting federal workers. She said the government entered an appearance in the case earlier in the day.
“Litigation never moves fast but we’re optimistic this case will move much faster than the case we filed in 2013 because the legal issues are resolved. It’s [a Federal Labor Standards Act] violation,” Burakiewicz said. “It’s absolutely outrageous that the government is requiring these essential employees to go to work often in dangerous jobs and when you hear everyone today, they don’t know how long it’s going to last and when they will get their next paycheck and people are sustaining real financial harm.”
Most Americans live paycheck to paycheck, some polls have shown. A 2017 report from CareerBuilder that polled 2,000 managers and more than 3,000 full-time employees between May and June of 2017 found that 78 percent of full-time workers said they lived paycheck to paycheck.
Cornelius, a Department of Transportation worker outside of D.C. who was not at Thursday’s protest and did not want his full name published, told ThinkProgress that he may have to look for a part-time job soon or independent contracting opportunity to ensure he pays his bills on time. Although he has an emergency fund, he is concerned it could run out if the funding lapse continues.
“It’s a very serious situation and I don’t think people realize it because missing a paycheck is a very serious thing,” he said. “I don’t think people take the matter seriously enough because it doesn’t affect a larger swath of the population for it to be at the forefront but we just passed Christmas. A lot of people are overspent for Christmas because in their mind they can make up for it with the next couple of paychecks or tax refund.”
Cornelius said he’s both angry with politicians responsible for the shutdown and those who voted for them.
“The politicians feel like they can shut down the government with no repercussions and they don’t care if people miss a paycheck but they’re able to do that because they have a constituency that doesn’t care,” he said. “‘They think so as long as my supporters don’t care about people not getting paid then I’ll just do it. They’ll vote for me anyway.’ So on the deep end, I do blame the politicians don’t get me wrong, because even if they could get away with it, they shouldn’t. But ultimately I do blame the people for allowing the propaganda to influence the way they think.”
Jim, who works for NASA and lives in the Washington metropolitan area and also did not want his full name used, said he has savings but he may have to dip into them if the shutdown continues for much longer. He is spending a lot of his time furloughed caring for his two year-old daughter, since she isn’t able to attend her daycare at NASA’s .
“My two-year old daughter was effectively furloughed one day as well and she said to me one day, daddy, I need to go to the doctor. She was like ‘I’m sick.’ And I checked to make sure she didn’t have a fever, normal dad stuff, and I said why do you think you’re sick?” Jim told ThinkProgress before Thursday’s protest, taking a break to tell his daughter that vitamins aren’t candy. “And she said because I’m not in school. I realized then that she has a classmate who was diagnosed with a serious disease and she knows why that classmate isn’t in school and she thought she must be sick. So that broke my heart.”
He’s also worried about the ripple effects of the shutdown beyond federal workers, such as how the daycare workers at his daughter’s center will go unpaid and likely not receive backpay since they are paid through non-appropriated funds.
“Everything is spread out further the longer this goes on,” he said. “Like our contractors, soon they’re going to stop being paid because they’re not going to be invoiced by whatever agency has contracted them to do work. Because we’re closed. And if the agency doesn’t invoice them, then they can’t bill the agency for the work they’ve done and now they’re not getting paid.”
Jim said that being stuck at home waiting to hear news about the shutdown and not being able to do work but unable to look for other work in case he is called back, is frustrating. Jim added that there is science not being published due to the shutdown and professional conferences that had to be cancelled.
Jim said it hit home to him how ridiculous — and harmful — the shutdown was after he realized how it affected his daughter.
“I had to explain this silly thing of why the government shut down, what the funding lapse was and that just really upset me that day,” he said. “And that night I was laying in my bed just fuming.”