Donald Trump

Free sandwiches and misery for unpaid US federal workers during shutdown

  • Donald Trump’s demand for taxpayer funding for a southern border wall has now led to the longest government closure in history
  • Frustrated employees posted photos on Twitter of their pay stub showing a net pay of $0
PUBLISHED : Sunday, 13 January, 2019, 3:20pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 13 January, 2019, 8:58pm

As the longest government shutdown in US history enters a fourth week with no resolution in sight, Jared Hautamaki considers himself relatively fortunate.

The Home Depot where he already worked several shifts a week agreed to employ him full-time while he and hundreds of thousands of federal employees are locked out of their day-jobs.

At US$14 an hour, his retail pay cheque will hardly match what he earns as a legal adviser with the Environmental Protection Agency.

But with four children under eight years old, Hautamaki says it’s a necessary accommodation.

But still he worries the temporary income won’t be enough to cover the costs of day care, a mortgage and the rest of his family’s monthly expenses if the shutdown lasts several more weeks as Donald Trump has threatened.

“Imagine. I’m 42 years old and my retired mother is calling to ask if I need a loan,” Hautamaki said, speaking from his home in Silver Spring, Maryland, after finishing a shift that started at 4am.

“I told her: not yet.”

He let out a sigh. “I hope it doesn’t come to that”.

Donald Trump visits border, threatens to declare ‘national emergency’ to fund wall, and cancels Davos trip

The Washington metropolitan area is home to the largest share of federal workers in the country – and on Friday many of them missed a paycheck for the first time since parts of the federal government ceased functioning on 22 December.

Frustrated employees posted photos on Twitter of their pay stub showing a net pay of $0.

Members of Congress left town on Friday and no negotiations are scheduled.

“This shutdown isn’t funny any more,” Randy Erwin, the president of the National Federation of Federal Employees, said at a rally in downtown Washington on Thursday.

“Right now, it’s ruining people’s lives.”

Hundreds of furloughed federal workers, contractors and union members from the capital region marched to the White House last week carrying signs that directed Congress and the president to “Do your job so we can do ours”.

Shutdown’s economic damage: US$1 billion a week

“This is not a vacation,” said Marcia Mia, a furloughed federal worker who helps encourage compliance with environmental laws at the EPA.

She attended the rally with a colleague, Apple Chapman, who both carried signs warning that polluters were getting off while they were kept off the job.

“The work that we do has a direct impact on communities,” said Chapman, who has worked at the agency for 18 years.

“It’s frustrating to know that and not be allowed to go to work.”

A quick history of Donald Trump’s evolving justifications for a border wall

The nation’s capital is now often eerily quiet during the weekday afternoon.

Lunchtime hotspots that typically draw long queues have none. Food trucks pack up earlier than usual. Taxi drivers circle the city in search of passengers. And few tourists wander the National Mall, where the Smithsonian museums have closed for the duration of the shutdown.

Meanwhile, the city of Washington has hired extra workers to clean up garbage from hundreds of trash bins managed by the federal government.

The DC council had to pass the “Love Act” allowing couples to obtain marriage licenses because the bureau that handles them is funded by the federal government.

As the impact of the shutdown ripples across the region, some DC businesses are offering discounts or help to ease the financial burden – and tedium – of a prolonged period without work.

Jose Andres, the owner of several popular restaurants in downtown DC and a vocal Trump critic, will give free sandwiches to “all my beautiful hardworking people of the Federal [government]”.

Federal employees can catch a movie for free throughout the month of January at the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema in Virginia. Meanwhile, several DC-area utility companies, as well as banks, mortgage companies and credit unions, have taken steps to help customers affected by the shutdown.

“For me, it’s the uncertainty – is it going to end today or is it not going to end?” said one 54-year-old employee of the National Science Foundation who asked not to be named.

“You want to plan your life but without knowing day-to-day what’s going to happen.”

Before the shutdown, he was charged with helping to prepare for it. He spent hours in meetings discussing funding lapse plans with senior officials who might otherwise be commissioning scientific research.

“I don’t think the public at large appreciates how much goes into preparing for a shutdown,” he said. “We’re costing everyone money – not saving money.”