Forget the Wall, Pay the People

On Saturday, December 22, 2018, the United States government partially shut down when the House and Senate were unable to come to an agreement about Trump’s proposed $5 billion border wall. This is the longest government shutdown in American history, and the effects it’s having on citizens are only getting worse as it continues.

 

The last time about 800,000 federal employees were paid was on December 28, 2018 at the end of a two week pay period. Now, employees are suffering from the partial shut down, knowing they’re in desperate need of financial help but unsure of what to do about it, as no one has any idea when the shutdown will end. Lari McLaurin, an IRS veteran who works in the agency’s Philadelphia office, says, “When they say ‘one paycheck away from homeless,’ I’m not there yet but I’m real close.” Other employees, like Ryan Baugh, a statistician in the Office of Immigration Statistics in the Department of Homeland Security, says he is unsure of how to plan, because there is no telling how long the shutdown will last. While some employees contemplate applying for another job, employees like Steve Reaves, a fire safety official for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, can’t. Since the Federal Emergency Management Agency is part of the Department of Homeland Security, Baugh and Reaves are unable to get second jobs without approval from their supervisors, and the supervisors, like the employees, have been forced into a temporary leave (furloughed). In a sort of silver lining, on Wednesday, January 16, Trump signed a legislation saying that furloughed employees will be paid in full once the shutdown is over. While this is good news for the future, it is still unclear when the shutdown will end and when these employees will see the money they are currently being denied. There are around 380,000 federal employees who have been furloughed, and about 420,000 who are working without pay.

 

While federal employees will eventually see the money they missed during the partial shutdown, contractors in federal buildings will not. Janitors, cafeteria workers, and security guards will not be paid for the time they missed after the partial shutdown is over. As Bonita Williams, a janitor at the State Department has said, “My supervisor told me we won’t be getting paid, so my bills won’t be getting paid.” On top of not being paid during the shutdown, health insurance is also at risk for these contractors. Frank Soults, a spokesperson for the labor union 32BJ SEIU has said that health care will continue to be provided for at least 30 days from the start of the shutdown. The shutdown now having lasted for over a month, it is possible some contractors are no longer covered. Unsurprisingly, Congress members are still being paid. Their salaries are written into the Constitution, which means they will not see a break in their paycheck or need to be paid back after the shutdown is over. A few of them, like Senator Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) and Representatives French Hill (R-AR) and Elise Stefanik (R-NY) have asked to have their salaries withheld until the shutdown is over. Others, like Senators Mazie Hirono (D-HI) and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), are donating their paychecks during the shutdown.

It’s important to remember that while this article starts to explain some of the issues impacting federal employees, it only scratches the surface. Families are being forced into homelessness, food banks are needing to help more people, and government programs not currently receiving funding are unable to help veterans, low income households, disabled communities, and unfortunately, the list goes on. This is an incredibly disheartening situation, and the cause of it is equally so: in 2016 when Trump ran for president, he promised to build a border wall between the United States and Mexico. The wall is meant to be a symbol of distance as well as a physical barrier to keep immigrants out. At the heart of all of this is xenophobia, and Trump’s aggressive fear mongering is only making the situation worse. Unfortunately, the wall is no longer only a symbol of distance, but an issue deeply affecting thousands of people as the government shutdown continues with no end in sight.

Update: As of Friday, January 25, 2019, the government has reopened for three weeks. Trump signed a stopgap bill that will allow federal employees to return to work, at least until February 15. The bill did not include the $5 billion Trump wants for the U.S.-Mexico border wall. Federal employees will be paid for the days of the shutdown “in the coming days,” but contractors will not.