On the 20th day of a partial government shutdown, furloughed federal workers, contractors and union representatives gathered before marching to the White House to demand that US President Donald Trump reopen the government – with or without funding he has requested for a new border wall.
Leaders of the National Federation of Federal Employees hope that bringing federal workers to the president’s doorstep will show him who the shutdown has hurt most.
Trump, though, wasn’t there to see them. He left for Texas early Thursday to visit the US-Mexico border.
“We want to send a very strong message – that this is not about politics, it’s about getting people back to work,” said Brittany Holder, a spokeswoman for the NFFE and a protest organiser.
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“A lot of the county thinks federal workers are all here in the DC area, but it’s only 15 per cent. If you’re living pay cheque to pay cheque to make ends meet, and suddenly the pay cheques stop? People are feeling really stressed and anxious, and they want to know when this will end.”
The partial shutdown, which has left nine federal departments and several agencies shuttered since December 22, remained at a standstill on Thursday after a meeting between Trump and Democratic leaders in Congress unravelled a day earlier.
Food inspections and maintenance of national parks have degraded, while federal loans and housing subsidies have languished in a state of limbo.
Thousands of federal workers and government contractors have turned to charities and online fundraisers to feed their families and pay bills.
Two federal employees’ unions have sued the Trump administration over the government shutdown since it began in December.
The American Federation of Government Employees – the largest union for federal workers – filed first, alleging that hundreds of thousands of federal employees are illegally being forced to work without pay.
The National Treasury Employees Union followed with a collective action that asked that two named plaintiffs – Customs and Border Protection officers – and other similarly classified individuals be paid owed wages.
Thursday’s protest, which began at noon in front of the AFL-CIO building, down the street from the White House, was meant to highlight the struggles of furloughed federal employees and out-of-work contractors.
Several Democratic members of Congress were expected to speak and join in the march to the White House, including House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland, senators. Benjamin Cardin of Maryland, Chris Van Hollen of Maryland and Mark Warner of Virginia, and Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton of the District of Columbia.
“We recognise that members of Congress in both parties have been working to get the government back open, but the president has continued to threaten to veto any bill that does that,” Holder said.
“People feel let down. They feel abandoned, like nobody cares.”
Should the shutdown continue, Holder said, the NFFE is prepared to continue holding protests to show their discontent. The group has also discussed organising a food drive and collecting aid for members who are struggling to make ends meet.
The NFFE has been receiving calls from its members since the shutdown began.
Holder recounted the story of a Department of Housing and Urban Development employee in California who just bought a house and is struggling to pay her mortgage, plus US$1400 (NZ$2064) a month in day-care bills. Like hundreds of others, the member’s husband has turned to soliciting internet donations via a GoFundMe page.
Another member of the union, a police officer with the National Park Service who lives in Washington state, said his sons just returned to college, leaving him with bills from universities and a list of expensive textbooks to buy.
“The federal government is supposed to be the place where we send our best and brightest,” Holder said.
“People should aspire to work for the federal government, but now they’re wondering if this is the place they want to be.”