Amer Al-Mudallal just wants to get back to work.
Like many of his colleagues, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency chemist is currently on furlough after Congress failed to meet a Dec. 21 deadline to pass appropriations bills funding vital federal government departments and agencies, including the EPA.
Unlike most other affected federal employees, Al-Mudallal and his coworkers received half of their usual pay on Jan. 11, since the EPA had enough existing funds to continue operations for a week after the government shutdown officially started on Dec. 22.
“In spite of that, I hear from my colleagues that they’re very worried, very concerned,” Al-Mudallal, who has been with the EPA for almost 23 years, said. “They have house mortgages to pay. They have car payments. Many have kids’ tuition to pay. They have medical bills and other financial obligations.”
As president of the National Treasury Employees Union Chapter 280 for the EPA headquarters, Al-Mudallal says he is disappointed to see the suffering of federal employees and their families being leveraged for political gain.
“We do our best to serve the American public, so I hope this ordeal will come to an end soon, and we go back to our jobs,” Al-Mudallal said.
Al-Mudallal is one of 16 federal workers who shared their stories about the impact of the federal government shutdown in a round table hosted by Sens. Tim Kaine and Mark Warner (D-Va.) at the Charles Houston Recreation Center in Alexandria on Jan. 11.
An estimated 800,000 federal workers have been affected by the ongoing shutdown, which surpassed the 21-day shutdown in 1994 and 1995 as the longest in U.S. history this past Saturday and has now lasted 28 days with no end in sight.
More than 380,000 people affected by the shutdown have been put on furlough, while an additional 420,000 employees are required to work without pay because their position has been deemed essential for public safety or other critical services.
Nearly 9,000 federal employees and contractors in Virginia, Maryland, and Washington, D.C., have applied for unemployment benefits since the shutdown began, according to Politico.
The people who participated in Kaine and Warner’s round table expressed sentiments similar to Al-Mudallal’s, detailing not only the financial pressures they are facing due to the uncertainty of when they will get their next paycheck, but also their frustrations at not being able to do their job.
A 20-year federal service worker who is currently employed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Springfield resident Maggie Ewell is fortunate in that, because her husband works for a federal agency that is still funded, her family is still receiving one paycheck.
However, without her income, they will still have to make some difficult choices and have already looked into deferring various bills, including the $2,700 charge from the orthodontist who handles her daughter’s braces.
On top of that financial stress, Ewell keeps thinking about all of the work she left behind, disputing the perception of a furlough as a vacation or free time to spend with family.
“I am guided by doing my work, and that’s not getting done,” Ewell said. “I’m going to have to do that when I get back, and I’m going to have to work really hard, so even after you open the government, there’s still going to be an impact for weeks as we get back.”
Fellow USDA employee Daniel Klein moved to Virginia over four years ago to work on the department’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, and he recently bought his first home, a condominium in Alexandria.
Though he was able to make his first payment on the condo, Klein is not sure how he will make a second if the shutdown continues.
Even beyond its direct impact on him, Klein is concerned about how the shutdown is affecting the low-income families and communities that depend on SNAP for access to food.
SNAP benefits are fully funded through January, and U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue announced plans on Jan. 8 to make February benefits available earlier than usual.
However, newly opened stores are unable to obtain the licenses required if they want to accept SNAP, because all of the employees who process retailer applications have been furloughed.
National Grocers Association president and CEO Peter Larkin said in a letter to Congress that more than 2,500 retailers have experienced a lapse or have been unable to reauthorize their SNAP license during the shutdown.
“This hurts small businesses, especially in communities that have a lot of SNAP recipients,” Klein said. “One in six Americans is a SNAP recipient. This also hurts the SNAP recipients, because…when there aren’t stores in your neighborhood that accept SNAP, it’s harder to use your benefits.
When he was forced to go on furlough, Federal Aviation Administration safety inspector Dan Ronneberg had to leave a U.S. Department of Defense request to authorize civilian helicopter operators in Iraq on his desk.
A pair of furloughed workers from the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board told Kaine and Warner that their inability to do their jobs could be putting public safety at risk.
Though it is small, the Chemical Safety Board has the vital mission of investigating the root causes of chemical accidents at industrial facilities around the country, but the agency will not be able to deploy anyone to look into an incident that occurred at a refinery in Houston on Jan. 5 and injured two people.
“Our major investigations include huge refinery explosions and huge chemical plant explosions,” CSB incident screening director and investigator Vidisha Parasram said. “There are investigations that are open that we’re not working on, that we’re not learning from, and we’re not proposing recommendations to curtail for the future.”
Like many of the federal workers at the round table, Parasram is a union member. Specifically, she serves as vice president of American Federation of Government Employees Local 2211, which CSB employees formed last year after the current White House administration proposed abolishing their agency in its annual budget requests.
Several federal employee unions have sued the federal government over the shutdown.
AFGE filed a lawsuit on Dec. 31 arguing that requiring employees to work without pay violates the Fair Labor Standards Act. The National Air Traffic Controllers Association filed a similar suit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia on Jan. 11.
“Every one of our government employees are suffering one way or the other,” NATCA President Paul Rinaldi said. “Even if they have enough savings to last a pay period or two, the morale of telling someone they’re nonessential when they’re actually doing pretty critical work, or the morale of coming to work and working a 90-hour work week and not getting paid, the morale is breaking down with our government employees.”
Service Employees International Union 32BJ Capital Area District Vice President Jaime Contreras was not present at the round table but issued a statement to the Fairfax County Times decrying the use of a government shutdown as a tactic to further what he sees as anti-immigrant policies.
Contreras is a naturalized immigrant from El Salvador, and many of the employees represented by SEIU are immigrants.
“The real emergency is that 800,000-plus workers are struggling to support their families, including our members who clean and secure federal buildings in Washington and NYC,” Contreras said. “Members like Tiera, a security officer at the Smithsonian, has been forced to cut down how much milk her baby drinks because she doesn’t know when her next paycheck is coming.”
Kaine and Warner both sponsored legislation to guarantee back pay for federal workers after this shutdown and for any future shutdowns. President Donald Trump signed the bill on Jan. 16 after it was approved by both the House and Senate.
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) has introduced a bill that would also authorize back pay for low-wage contractors, including those in retail, food, custodial, and security services, but it has not yet been included in legislation aimed at reopening the government, according to The Hill.
“I respect that public service,” Warner told the federal workers at the Alexandria round table. “I respect what you do to keep all of us safe and protected in a whole variety of ways, and you deserve to be treated better than the way you’ve been treated.”
However, Warner also acknowledged that back pay will not be of much use for individuals and families who are struggling to cover immediate financial needs.
International Trade Commission employee Lynette Gabourel, for example, is diabetic and will have to forgo some of her medications next time she has to get refills.
Justice Department trial attorney Brian Uholik faced a scare when he was unable to contact his human resources office to get the documentation needed to add his 7-week-old daughter to his federal health insurance plan, though he was eventually able to work out an arrangement with his insurance provider.
Joanna McCleland works for the Customs and Border Patrol’s office of acquisition, policy, and oversight in the Department of Homeland Security.
She is currently getting by on her husband’s income from a part-time job with Prince William County’s public library system along with help from friends and family, but one of her friends was unable to afford medication necessary for recovery from a kidney transplant.
McCleland finds it particularly ironic that she has been deemed nonessential, even though she works on programs like the proposed border wall that has been the primary point of contention between Trump and Congressional Democrats in negotiations to resolve the shutdown.
“It hurts your morale to hear you’re not essential. Don’t come to work,” McCleland said. “…I feel pretty doggone essential when I’m at work, so it’s kind of hard to hear ‘go home, you’re not essential,’ because no one understand how much stuff gets done in the background when the government’s functioning.”