Trump’s Shutdown Is Forcing Over 400,000 Federal Employees To Work Without Pay

Saurav Sarkar January 18, 2019

The shutdown has been a disaster for working people. (Photo by Scott Varley/MediaNews Group/Daily Breeze via Getty Images)

What would you do if man­age­ment could force you to work with­out pay, lock you out with no con­se­quences, and fire you for going on strike?

That’s the sit­u­a­tion fac­ing 800,000 fed­er­al work­ers — and their unions — dur­ing the longest gov­ern­ment shut­down in U.S. history.

Forty per­cent of the government’s civil­ian work­force besides postal work­ers are being deprived of mon­ey to pay for rent, gas, gro­ceries, and car and stu­dent loan payments.

They include 420,000 work­ers who are being forced to work with­out pay and 380,000 who are locked out.

The shut­down is the result of Pres­i­dent Trump’s demand that Con­gress fund an anti-immi­grant wall along the U.S.-Mexico bor­der. Democ­rats in Con­gress are refus­ing to go along with the idea.

Trans­porta­tion Secu­ri­ty Admin­is­tra­tion agents are among those being forced to work with­out pay because their work is deemed essen­tial. Oth­ers include prison guards, air traf­fic con­trollers, and the Coast Guard.

Most of her co-work­ers are real­ly frus­trat­ed,” said TSA offi­cer Kel­ly Eads of Gov­ern­ment Employ­ees (AFGE) Local 1230 in north­ern Cal­i­for­nia. Morale is real­ly low. A lot of offi­cers can’t or don’t want to come to work.”

The non-essen­tial work­ers who are locked out on fur­lough include most employ­ees of the Envi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency, the Nation­al Parks Ser­vice, and the Small Busi­ness Admin­is­tra­tion, among many others.

We have a lot of mem­bers that are two-income fed­er­al house­holds,” said Ash­by Crow­der, pres­i­dent of AFGE Local 2578. It’s tough for all of us, but it’s real­ly tough for them.” His local rep­re­sents locked-out Nation­al Archives workers.

The admin­is­tra­tion has attacked fed­er­al unions relent­less­ly over the past two years.

Last May, Trump issued three exec­u­tive orders that made it eas­i­er to fire fed­er­al work­ers, reduced the amount of offi­cial time avail­able to union rep­re­sen­ta­tives, and lim­it­ed the scope and length of col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing. How­ev­er, the key pro­vi­sions of these orders were struck down in court.

More recent­ly, Trump froze civil­ian fed­er­al work­ers’ pay for 2019.

No cush­ion

Sev­en­ty-eight per­cent of Amer­i­cans live pay­check to pay­check, accord­ing to a 2017 Career­Builder report.

Fed­er­al work­ers are no excep­tion, and they are suf­fer­ing. Some are sell­ing their plas­ma, work­ing sec­ond jobs as Uber and Lyft dri­vers, or call­ing out sick because they can’t afford to put gas in their cars. One was rationing insulin she needs to treat her diabetes.

Black work­ers, who make up 18 per­cent of the fed­er­al work­force, have been dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly affect­ed. Giv­en the racial wealth gap, they often have less of a cush­ion to rely on.

Eads said many TSA offi­cers can’t find sec­ond jobs due to the odd hours they’re forced to work. Even when they’re get­ting paid, TSA offi­cers are among the low­est-paid gov­ern­ment employ­ees. In some places their start­ing salary is as low as $23,000 a year.

The sit­u­a­tion is even worse for employ­ees of fed­er­al con­trac­tors, like jan­i­tors and cafe­te­ria servers in fed­er­al build­ings. They are less like­ly to receive back pay once the shut­down ends and, unlike fed­er­al work­ers, have no guar­an­tee of keep­ing their health insurance.

The pub­lic has not been spared from the impact. Envi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency inspec­tions have ground to a halt. Food stamp recip­i­ents have been warned by states to bud­get their Feb­ru­ary ben­e­fits in case the shut­down goes on. Low-income res­i­dents are fear­ing evic­tion if gov­ern­ment rental assis­tance pay­ments are cut off.

Ham­strung by law

The two biggest unions of fed­er­al work­ers have filed law­suits against the gov­ern­ment for forc­ing employ­ees to work with­out pay.

AFGE rep­re­sents 670,000 fed­er­al work­ers. The Trea­sury Employ­ees (NTEU) rep­re­sents 150,000.

Thou­sands joined a Jan­u­ary 10 demon­stra­tion in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., backed by the two unions, 31 oth­ers, and the AFL-CIO.

Some sym­pa­thet­ic observers have called for more mil­i­tant action. Most promi­nent­ly, in the New York Times, author Bar­bara Ehren­re­ich and for­mer orga­niz­er Gary Steven­son called for affect­ed fed­er­al work­ers to strike.

Fed­er­al unions are legal­ly pro­hib­it­ed from advo­cat­ing a strike against the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment. The specter of a mass fir­ing, as Rea­gan did to strik­ing air traf­fic con­trollers in 1981, always looms large.

But Joseph McCartin, the fore­most his­to­ri­an of the pub­lic sec­tor labor move­ment, sug­gest­ed in the Amer­i­can Prospect that unpaid fed­er­al work­ers might use a tac­tic with a long his­to­ry among pub­lic sec­tor work­ers: spon­ta­neous sickouts.\

Sick of unpaid work

Some work­ers have begun tak­ing such ini­tia­tives. Unco­or­di­nat­ed sick­outs by TSA offi­cers forced Mia­mi and Houston’s biggest air­ports to shut one ter­mi­nal each over the weekend.

TSA offi­cials ini­tial­ly claimed the num­ber of work­ers call­ing in sick was only slight­ly more than nor­mal. That’s not the report we got from local agents.

On some days last week the rate of sick calls at north­ern Cal­i­for­nia air­ports was three times as high as nor­mal, accord­ing to TSA offi­cer Gilbert Galam, the sec­re­tary of AFGE Local 1230.

By Jan­u­ary 14, the TSA itself was con­ced­ing that the nation­al rate of sick calls was three times as high as the same day a year ago.

Crow­der and nine of his co-work­ers from the Nation­al Archives staged a small protest along­side a major thor­ough­fare in Col­lege Park, Mary­land on Jan­u­ary 4, in the sec­ond week of the lockout.

We’re not just going to sit at home,” said Crowder.

Sim­i­lar ral­lies have tak­en place in St. Louis, Boston, Tal­la­has­see, Philadel­phia, and New York.

Fif­teen work­ers and sup­port­ers pick­et­ed out­side a fed­er­al build­ing in low­er Man­hat­tan on the frigid morn­ing of Jan­u­ary 10, chant­i­ng Feds wan­na work” and Yes work, no wall.”

Some of the pick­eters weren’t direct­ly affect­ed by the shut­down, but came to show solidarity.

Tomor­row it could be us,” said Fran­co DiCroce, pres­i­dent of Pro­fes­sion­al and Tech­ni­cal Employ­ees (IFPTE) Local 98 and a project man­ag­er at the Army Corps of Engi­neers, a fed­er­al agency that’s cur­rent­ly ful­ly fund­ed. Large chunks of the gov­ern­ment have already been fund­ed for 2019 through pri­or legislation.

Jan­u­ary 11 marked the first full missed pay­check for most affect­ed fed­er­al work­ers. Galam thought that mem­bers would be more fired up to ral­ly after going with­out pay for the first time since the gov­ern­ment began its shut­down on Decem­ber 222018.

The last time the gov­ern­ment shut down for more than two weeks was in 2013, when it did so for 16 days.

This sto­ry first appeared at Labor Notes.

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