Life has gone on seemingly unchanged for most Americans since Donald Trump shut down the government days before Christmas, and even an out-of-town visitor to our nation’s capital might not see the deep turmoil boiling within the city. Hundreds of thousands of federal workers hurtle closer toward crisis every day — though our elected officials and president aren’t acting like it.
That feeling of complacency is directly at odds with the reality of how deeply this shutdown has been impacting thousands of federal government subcontractors. They have already gone weeks without pay, will not be compensated for the lost earnings when the government reopens, and have already been flung into a financial crisis that could have lasting effects on their families.
These are low-wage workers who serve food to the public every day in federal buildings like the Smithsonian and other beloved American museums. Our union, UNITE HERE, represents about 500 of them, and they make about $32,000 a year before taxes.
Even families earning a living wage often can’t absorb the financial blow of being robbed of weeks or months of pay — and families below the poverty line certainly can’t. Deepening the crisis is the fact that all their medical benefits are scheduled to expire Feb. 1, unless immediate action is taken to continue funding them. With weeks of no income and a loss of health care coverage, our members will face evictions, have to ration or share medications like insulin, and be forced to choose which prescriptions they can afford to stay on. One medical emergency, one unplanned hospital visit, one ambulance ride could financially ruin them.
Lisa Earle serves food at the Smithsonian full time and is now preparing for the fact that if she, her children, or any of her large extended family who rely on her have one unexpected health event during the shutdown, they could become homeless. As politicians were home celebrating the holidays, she was wondering how she would survive.
Jackie Sizemore works at the cafeteria at the Department of Commerce. When the rest of her building comes back once the government reopens, most will at least receive back pay for the time spent furloughed. Not Jackie. She and her coworkers, unlike the people they serve in the cafeteria, will never be paid back for the weeks of lost income.
Almaz Memgesteab is a cook who serves US Department of Agriculture workers in their staff cafeteria. She’s an Eritrean immigrant who waited decades to be able to come to America, taking a job with modest pay in exchange for the stability and job security that she thought the union job and contract would offer. Ana Martinez, a Salvadoran immigrant who works in the kitchen at the National Museum of American History, took the job for the same reasons. These workers, who immigrated for a chance at the American dream, are having their lives slowly torn apart as politicians treat them as collateral damage in a standoff over racist immigration policies.
Americans and their representatives need to understand the immediate crisis being experienced by these thousands of low-wage federal subcontractors. Through no fault of their own, they’re weeks away from losing all medical coverage and benefits — and they’ve already gone weeks without pay, with no chance of being compensated later.
You may not see or feel the effect of the shutdown in your daily life, but the pain is deeply real for thousands of workers like the people mentioned here, whose lives have been thrown into chaos by a president who plays games with their well-being. As workers face eviction and bankruptcy because of the shutdown, Trump’s businesses are getting special exceptions that allow them to continue benefiting from services provided by federal workers who would otherwise be sent home.
If the pain of these workers does not move you, know that the pain of the shutdown will soon be hitting you too. The length of this shutdown is already on track to surpass that of the lengthy 2013 shutdown, when over $2 billion in individual tax returns to Americans went out behind schedule. State services that millions outside the Beltway rely on could be impacted next. And for the crucial federal services not yet impacted? That’s because 420,000 workers have been forced to work without pay since Dec. 22, making them unable to even get emergency temporary jobs to survive the furlough if they wanted to. The largest federal workers public sector union, the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), has filed a lawsuit over this injustice.
Getting all federal employees back to work and compensating all of them for their weeks of lost income is essential. Human life is too valuable to treat as a political football when a small, racist president doesn’t get his way.
D. Taylor is the international president of the UNITE HERE union.