The blase attitude of Trump administration officials is a world away from the experience of federal employees – who fear a repeat in three weeks’ time
Even as he announced an end to the longest government shutdown in US history, Donald Trump warned that a new shutdown could begin in just three weeks “if we don’t get a fair deal from Congress”.
That threat meant that clouds of uncertainty still remain in place for hundreds of thousands of government workers and unknown others whose lives were interrupted or derailed by a shutdown precipitated and prolonged by the president’s demand for a border wall, which he redoubled on Friday.
From the National Park Service to Nasa, the Coast Guard to border patrol, the Internal Revenue Service to the Transportation Security Administration – federal agencies are now filled with workers with damaged credit ratings, missed mortgage payments, new debts and, especially, new doubts about their basic job security and the future.
“I have the luxury that friends have loaned me one paycheck,” said Leisyka Parrott, 47, a furloughed employee with the Bureau of Land Management who is paying off a car loan. “The thing is when you get back pay, all the fees that you incur by missing payments – you don’t get paid back for those. If you are late for a payment and have a $25 fee, the government doesn’t pay for that.”
Trump presented his announcement on Friday as a return to business as usual for federal employees. “I will make sure that all employees receive their back pay very quickly – or as soon as possible,” Trump said. “It’ll happen fast.”
But even if the president makes good on his word, a quick return to normalcy was not likely for many federal employees, and especially for government contractors not entitled to back pay, union representatives warned.
“There’s all kinds of issues with raising families, just buying gasoline,” said Franco DiCroce, a US army corps of engineers employee speaking in his capacity as president of Local 98 of the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers. “Most of these people, their salaries are not skyrocketing. They’re suffering even more, because some of them live check-to-check, so if they don’t have money coming in, they’re going to have difficulty meeting their needs, to even buy groceries.”
The number of federal employees filing for unemployment more than doubled in the second week of January to reach 25,000, up from 10,500 the week before, according to Labor Department figures. Last year the figure was 1,700.
In announcing an end to the shutdown, Trump made only passing reference to the “recent hardship” workers had endured, and Trump claimed that federal employees did not want the shutdown to end.
Then the president mentioned that the shutdown might come back as soon as 15 February, after temporary spending legislation runs out.
“If we don’t get a fair deal from Congress, the government will either shut down on February 15, again,” Trump said, or he would take unspecified action to divert funding for a wall, which could include declaring a national emergency at the border.
As pressure to end the shutdown grew to a crisis point over the last week, Trump administration figures began to dole out free advice to government employees about how to cover their domestic needs without the benefit of an income.
Trump suggested that employees could arrange with grocers to shop for food on credit. The president’s daughter-in-law said, “It is a little bit of pain but it’s going to be for the future of our country.” The president’s top economic adviser called the shutdown a “glitch”.
The House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, the top Democrat in Washington, detected a trend. “This Marie Antoinette attitude of ‘let them eat cake’ is pervasive in the administration,” Pelosi said. “The president thinks, I guess, they can call their dads for money.”
The billionaire commerce secretary, Wilbur Ross, who collects Magrittes and in 2017 wore a pair of $600 velvet slippers customized with his department’s emblem to a Trump address to Congress, admitted on Thursday he did “not really quite understand why” federal employees have had to turn to food banks, recommending instead that they take out a bank loan against future income.
“It’s obvious that he’s woefully out of touch,” said Randy Erwin, national president of the National Federation of Federal Employees, which has about 110,000 members.
“He clearly does not understand the reality of being a middle-class worker in this country. First, people do not necessarily have access to the credit the way that he describes. And secondly with the shutdown, there are some very real logistical burdens in being able to access credit even if you would be able to under normal circumstances.”
After calling the shutdown a “glitch”, the White House economic adviser, Larry Kudlow, said employees working without pay were “volunteering”. Challenged on the term, given that employees who do not “volunteer” face losing their jobs, Kudlow said, “I’m not even going to go there. You know what I’m saying. It’s very clear …
“They do it because of their love for the country, the office of the presidency, and, uh, presumably their allegiance to President Trump, but whatever: they’re doing it.”
“I have no idea what this guy is talking about, and you can quote me,” said Erwin, the union president.
“First, federal employees declare an oath to protect the constitution. They work for the American people. They absolutely do not work for any one person, regardless of who it is.
“And about them being volunteers – these are not volunteers. This is compelled servitude. These people do not have a choice. They are absolutely being forced to work without pay indefinitely.”
Parrott, the BLM employee, said the pause in the shutdown was “great news” but added, “at the end of three weeks, what will we do when we are back at the same place? Not allowed to work and no income. The lack of leadership is scary. I hope they find a path forward.”
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