'I live paycheck to paycheck': Federal workers rally for their jobs at White House
Union leaders staged two rallies in Washington Thursday to bring attention to federal workers who are going without paychecks. (Jan. 10) AP
Federal workers and their supporters rallied for their jobs near the White House on Thursday as the partial government shutdown rolled through its third week with no end in sight.
Almost half of the 800,000 civilian federal employees are not working, and even those who are won't be paid until the stalemate is settled. For most, the furlough becomes real Friday when they miss their first payday.
Hundreds of protesters marched near the White House on a sunny but cold and windy day with signs saying, “Let me work for the people,” “We want to work” and “Trump: End the shutdown.”
Mahasin Mohamed, a security officer for the Smithsonian Institution for seven years, brought a sign that said, “Trump pay my bills or give back our jobs.” Lila Johnson, a contracted custodian for the U.S. Department of Agriculture for 21 years, said her daughter has helped her out financially.
“It’s a struggle," Johnson said. "It’s time for them to open the government back up, so people like me ... can go back to work.”
IRS employee Horatio Fenton came from Philadelphia to attend the D.C. rally.
“I don’t know where the next paycheck is coming from," Fenton said. "I have a mortgage. I have regular, everyday expenses, so I’m very concerned right now.”
Federal employees across the nation are feeling the pain. In tiny Arcata, California, single mom Leisyka Lee said she has worked for the Bureau of Land Management for 17 years.
"I live paycheck to paycheck," she said. "I earn a living wage when I work. I love my job, and I just want to get back to work."
In Madison, Wisconsin, Carl Houtman has spent the past 21 years working for the Forest Service. The chemical engineer said he is the primary wage earner for his family of four, including two in college.
"Guess what happens this time of year: tuition bills," he said, "property tax, Christmas credit cards. This is absolutely the worst time of year to miss a paycheck."
President Donald Trump said he would be willing to keep the shutdown going for a year or more if Democrats don't yield to his demands for $5.7 billion toward funding a border wall. Talks broke down Wednesday, and it was unclear when they would restart.
Trump claimed that "most of the people not getting paid are Democrats." He said federal workers support his plans for the wall and his decision to force the shutdown.
"The president has a cavalier attitude because he has no idea what it's like to rely on a regular paycheck," said Steve Lenkart, spokesman for the National Federation of Federal Employees.
Houtman said Trump has a dismissive attitude toward federal workers that dampens their hopes for a quick settlement.
"The whole drumbeat in the conservative media about how federal employees don't really do anything, that we are not important, it adds to the stress," Houtman said.
Some workers started GoFundMe campaigns, but the Office of Government Ethics warned that standard rules apply. Such donations would probably be considered gifts, and rules for accepting gifts are stringent.
The U.S. Coast Guard posted a tip sheet with a list of suggestions such as holding garage sales, baby-sitting or tutoring to make ends meet. One last option: declaring bankruptcy. The tip sheet was later removed from the agency's website.
The federation, which represents more than 100,000 federal workers, co-sponsored Thursday's rally. Federal employees marched in other cities as well. In Edison, New Jersey, Edward Guster marched in a crowd of about 300. The EPA scientist noted that workers have not patronized shops and eateries.
“Those local businesses must be feeling that," he said.
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The work the employees do is also affected. Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said his agency cut back significantly on safety inspections of domestic food.
Guster said his inability to inspect gas station leaks could lead to contaminated groundwater. Lee, a former firefighter who does education outreach for the Bureau of Land Management, said vegetation fuel reduction work usually performed this time of year across the West is on hold, which could loom large when fire season rolls around in the spring.
Houtman said he has research reports sitting idle on his desk, and he has a graduate student hamstrung in her efforts to complete experiments required for her thesis.
He said his financial problems remain front and center. Neighbors brought food from their freezer to help his family out, he said.
"We are not that desperate yet," he said. "But we took the food."