‘We want to work’
By TIM ROWDEN
Furloughed federal workers, members of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) Local 3354, rallied with representatives from the Missouri AFL-CIO, St. Louis Labor Council, area building trades and other St. Louis unions outside the Federal Center at 4300 Goodfellow Blvd. Jan.10 to demand an end to the government shutdown that has left the federal employees either unable to work, or forced to work without a paycheck.
Some 100 union members lined the sidewalk in front of the building that houses the USDA’s Rural Housing Program, which provides incentives to farmers and home loans and rental assistance for rural families, bearing signs that bore their rallying cry: “Stop the shutdown! We want to work!”
Under increasing scrutiny for alleged financial and campaign improprieties, and looking ahead to the 2020 election, Republican President Donald Trump has been using the shutdown as a cudgel to force Congress to approve $5.7 billion in federal tax dollars to build a wall along the nation’s southern border to fulfill a campaign promise to his base to address crisis that Democrats, border state politicians and residents who live along the border say doesn’t exist.
Some 800,000 federal employees – including about 12,000 in Missouri – missed their first paycheck as a result of the political standoff, with bills coming in and no guarantee of when they might get paid.
‘HOW IS THIS MAKING
AMERICA GREAT AGAIN?’
Emma James has worked for the federal government for 18 years, the past 11 in USDA’s multi-family housing unit processing home loans, grants and rental assistance.
“I really feel bad for the people who need assistance,” she said. “How is this making America great again hurting people who can’t get an apartment, who can’t get assistance, who can’t pay their bills?”
Donna Rogers, a U.S. Army veteran and account technician with the Rural Development program, said many workers have been forced to “volunteer” to come in to work without pay to process incentive payments and loan paperwork, even as they are going without paychecks themselves.
“We’re trying to help everybody process their loans and get payments out so people can function, but it’s hard,” Rogers said. “We want to get paid. Congress is getting paid right now, we’re not. A lot of us work paycheck-to-paycheck. It’s hard getting gas, getting food, and some of us have small children. It’s just a really difficult time for us right now.
“We want them to come to an agreement so we can get back to work, so we can process loans, process taxes and do what we do best to help America,” she said. “We want to get back to work. We want this shutdown to end. We’re ready.”
EIGHT HOURS WITHOUT PAY
Bill Grant, president of Local 3354, is among the workers at USDA being forced to work without pay.
“They want you to work eight-hours-a-day without pay,” Grant said. “But we have people who are single, who are mothers who work part-time jobs as well, who had negotiated with their part-time employers to get full-time hours.”
Grant said management at the St. Louis office has been working with those employees, allowing them to come in for only four hours. That’s good he said, but the fact that the Rural Development and other federal programs are continuing to operate during the shutdown means there is little incentive for the President or Congress to end the stalemate.
Grant said about 100 employees were being forced to work without pay last week, with another 200 expected to be called back this week – again, without pay.
“We are working with management to try to get the process done,” Grant said. “But we’re in there without pay. The people that are in there are trying to work as well as they can for our clients. They get it, but they’re pissed, they’re frustrated. The administration seems to not care, and my boss is being pushed by this administration to do this.
“We’ve never seen this before when you’re on furlough as a non-essential employee that they still force you to come in,” he said.
‘NOT WHAT THIS COUNTRY IS ALL ABOUT’
Mike Louis, president of the Missouri AFL-CIO, noted how Congressman Scott Perry (R-Pa.) expressed disbelieve that workers were actually living paycheck-to-paycheck and couldn’t get by for a few weeks without pay.
“The average government employee – of the 800,000 who are furloughed or having to work without pay – their average take home pay is about $480 a week,” Louis said.
“If you figure you pay $1,000 a month for a house payment, you put food on the table, you have to have dependable transportation, how are you not living paycheck-to-paycheck?” Louis asked.
“And we have really great suggestions from the government to supplement your income. You can have a garage sale! Call you landlord and say can I do some work around the apartment complex here and work some of this off?
“That’s not what this country is all about!” Louis said. “That’s not what this president’s empty promises were all about. He was all about American workers, American jobs and America making more money and a stronger economy. This is none of that. This is the exact opposite of that. This is taking money out of the economy. This is taking food off the table. This is getting people kicked out of their homes. This is ridiculous and we need to stand with our brothers and sisters who have been put in this predicament because he’s holding jobs hostage for a wall that’s not going to work anyway!”
WHAT ABOUT THE GIRL SCOUTS?
The effects of the shutdown are being felt in unexpected ways.
Jane Pryor, a USDA accountant, said she was worrying about paying for her prescriptions and doctor’s appointment last week when she went to school to pick-up her granddaughter, who told her, “‘Grandma, don’t forget about Girl Scout cookies.’ I normally sell 125 boxes of Girl Scout cookies. Nobody is going to buy cookies when they don’t have a job,” Pryor said. “When they say trickle down, it trickles down on us. It’s trickling down on our Girl Scouts. The pharmacy doesn’t care that I’m not getting a paycheck, the gas company doesn’t care, they need to get paid.”
Congressman William Lacy Clay (D-St. Louis) issued a press release following the address.
“There is no emergency along our southern border, but there is a very real crisis in the Oval Office,” Clay said.
“The lies that the President told the nation tonight cannot hide the ugly truth that he owns both this shutdown and the devastating financial damage that over 800,000 federal employees will suffer to satisfy his ego and his racist campaign promise to build a wall that has absolutely nothing to do with border security.
“Federal employees are not pawns in a political game of chicken,” Clay said. “They are essential public servants who make this country work for the American people. They deserve to be paid on time, to be respected for all that they do.
“In Missouri, there are more than 12,000 federal employees who are affected by this shutdown,” Clay said. “We’ve given Mr. Trump the ability to reopen this government and end this shutdown. He should do it immediately.”