clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

“Federal workers are people, not pawns”: hundreds protest shutdown in Senate building

Government employees and contract workers said they’ve stopped paying their bills.

Federal workers and contractors stage a protest calling for and end to the government shutdown and back pay in the Hart Senate Office Building on Wednesday, January 23, 2019.
Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call

Hundreds of furloughed federal workers and contractors crowded a Senate office building Wednesday to protest the government shutdown, urging Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to stop playing politics with their paychecks.

“No more food banks, we need paychecks!” they chanted from the atrium of the Hart Senate Office Building.

Unpaid workers for NASA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and the Smithsonian museums joined security guards and catering employees to express their anger over the shutdown, which has left 800,000 employees furloughed or working without pay for more than a month. Tens of thousands of contractors are out of work too.

As the shutdown enters its fifth week, President Donald Trump’s plan to withhold government funding until House Democrats give him $5.7 billion to build a border wall is growing more unpopular by the day. And no one is more upset than the workers who can’t pay their mortgages or credit card bills.

“I’m afraid of losing my house,” said Tamela Worthen, a 55-year-old security guard who works at the National Museum of African-American History and Culture. She told me she will miss her mortgage payment next week because she hasn’t gotten a paycheck in a month. And as a government contractor, she won’t get repaid when the shutdown ends unless Congress intervenes.

“We’ll just go deeper and deeper into debt,” Worthen told me. She also said she has stopped taking medication for diabetes and high blood pressure because she can’t afford the copay.

Tamela Worthen works as a security guard at several Smithsonian museums.
Alexia Fernández Campbell/Vox

Worthen and other workers at the protest said they are growing increasingly anxious — and angry — as the shutdown drags on. Some of them didn’t want to talk about the politics of the shutdown, but those who did blamed Trump and Republicans in Congress for using them as political “pawns.”

Employees are poised to miss a second paycheck on Friday, so unless Congress reopens the government before then, the situation will likely go from bad to worse.

“Stop hurting us”

Wednesday’s protest was organized by a dozen labor unions that represent federal employees and contractors. Several of those unions, such as the National Federation of Federal Employees, have sued the administration for forcing some employees to continue working without pay. But a federal judge struck down their lawsuit last week, so they organized the rally to pressure Congress to end the shutdown.

Federal employees remained silent for 33 minutes during the rally — one minute for each day of the shutdown. Then they began shouting.

“We want to work, we want to work,” they chanted.

Workers at the rally also told me they’ve had to stop paying their bills or were about to miss a payment. Isabella Bruno, a designer for the Smithsonian museums, said she called her credit card company this week asking for a break. She has a bit of a financial cushion because her husband works in the private sector, she said, but they can’t live on his salary alone for much longer.

“The whole situation is so frustrating,” Bruno said as she chased around her 3-year-old daughter, whose federally run day care center is closed because of the shutdown. “It’s so demoralizing to think that my work means so little that my job can be put on hold indefinitely.”

Isabella Bruno is currently furloughed from her job as a designer for the Smithsonian museums. The federally run day care center her 3-year-old daughter attends is closed during the shutdown.
Alexia Fernández Campbell/Vox

Bruno held up a sign that read “Why are you getting paid?” referring to members of Congress, all of whom continue to receive paychecks during the shutdown. Other workers held up signs with messages scrawled in marker that read “Stop hurting us” and “federal workers are people, not pawns.”

Pressure has been building on Trump to reopen the government before reaching a deal with Democrats related to the border wall. So far, the president has refused, and instead offered to extend two immigration programs he has tried in the past to revoke, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and Temporary Protected Status (TPS), to entice Democrats to give him the wall funding. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other congressional Democrats said they won’t negotiate until the shutdown ends.

“There is serious and justified concern that this president would shut down the government any time he doesn’t get his way legislatively,” Pelosi said Wednesday at a gathering of the US Conference of Mayors. “That’s why we must hold the line on this shutdown in government.”

The House has passed multiple bills to reopen the government, but McConnell has refused to put those bills up for a Senate vote. On Wednesday, he blocked a fourth bill Democrats proposed that would reopen most of the government. The Republican leader has instead scheduled votes on Thursday for two competing bills. One bill has Trump’s support and includes $5 billion for the wall, stricter rules for asylum seekers, and a temporary extension of DACA and TPS. The other, which Democrats support, would fund the government through February 8 without any money for the wall.

I asked federal workers at the protest if Democrats should give Trump money for the border wall. They told me definitely not.

“Even if it means you will get a paycheck?” I asked Veronica Tucker, who has worked for 25 years at a catering company that contracts with the House of Representatives.

“If you give him what he wants, what do you think is going to happen next time? This will never end,” said Tucker, who says she is already behind on her mortgage payments. She accused the president of taking the country back to the Great Depression. “People are waiting in food lines,” she said. “This is not the America I know.”

Police arrest union leaders outside McConnell’s office

After the rally, union leaders led a handful of federal employees to McConnell’s office in another Senate building. Workers and journalists crowded outside the doorway as labor leaders demanded a meeting. They were told McConnell wasn’t available and that they would have to make an appointment. The group, which included the president of the Union Veterans Council and the National Federation of Federal Employees, refused to leave. They sat down in the hallway instead.

“Folks are hurting!” they shouted. “End the shutdown!”

Capitol Police officers then arrested them, lined them up outside the building, and put them in the back of a van.

Meanwhile, the longest government shutdown in US history keeps getting longer.

National President of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) J. David Cox is led away by a member of U.S. Capitol Police after he participated in a civil disobedience outside the office of Senate Majority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY)
National president of the American Federation of Government Employees J. David Cox is arrested by US Capitol Police after he participated in civil disobedience outside the office of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on January 23, 2019.
Alex Wong/Getty Images