On the sixth day of the ongoing partial government shutdown, President Donald Trump took to Twitter and suggested thousands of federal employees temporarily out of work are simply pawns in a larger political game.
“Do the Dems realize that most of the people not getting paid are Democrats?” the president taunted, reiterating his demand for billions of dollars in funding for a wall along the southern border.
Anyone surprised to see the president drag the voting preferences of furloughed workers into this fight hasn’t been paying much attention to Trump’s relationship with those who do the government’s work. He has been provoking federal workers since pretty much the day he assumed office ― whether it’s threatening a pay freeze, trying to strip away job protections or equating civil servants with a bloated and corrupt “swamp.”
To those who advocate for federal employees, the shutdown is part of a larger pattern with the White House.
“It’s almost as if we have an administration that is at war with its own workforce,” said Jacque Simon, policy director at the American Federation of Government Employees, a union representing 700,000 government workers. “It’s been an ongoing assault on the economic interests of federal employees.”
Trump has warned that the government may be shut down “for a very long time” if Democrats don’t sign off on $5 billion for a wall the president used to say Mexico would pay for. Trump hasn’t found enough votes in Congress to break the stalemate, even though Republicans still control both the House and Senate. Democrats’ hand will be stronger on Jan. 3, when they take over as the House majority.
Roughly three quarters of the government’s funding has already been appropriated by Congress, leaving only certain agencies closed for the shutdown. An estimated 420,000 federal employees are working without pay, and another 380,000 have been furloughed, meaning they are out of work for the duration. It would require an act of Congress to retroactively pay both groups of workers once the government reopens, as lawmakers have typically done in the past.
But backpay is no guarantee with a divided Congress. Meanwhile, depending on how long the shutdown lasts, workers without sufficient savings may be forced to take out short-term loans, search for part-time jobs or apply for unemployment insurance to tide them over until work resumes. (Many federal contractors, who are not direct employees of the government, will never recoup the wages they missed due to agencies shuttering temporarily.)
Simon said some of the union’s members who were slated to be furloughed were called into work the day after Christmas in order to help wind down agency functions for the shutdown. “With this administration, nothing is orderly. They certainly are making it up as they go,” she said.
If Trump seems cavalier about the disruption, perhaps it’s because sticking it to federal workers has been central to his politics.
In his State of the Union address this year, Trump said he wanted to try to make it easier for federal agencies to fire employees, a move some ethics watchdogs said would politicize agency work. His administration later made good on the threat, issuing a batch of executive orders aimed at peeling back job protections for civil servants and weakening federal employee unions.
In a major setback for Trump, a judge blocked those orders in August, ruling that the president cannot “eviscerate the right to bargain collectively” by federal workers.
Days after that ruling, Trump announced in a letter to House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) that he wanted to cancel a scheduled 2.1 percent pay raise for the federal workforce in fiscal year 2019. The president said he wanted to implement an “alternative” pay plan ― zero percent ― to keep the country on a “fiscally sustainable course.”
Trump cannot unilaterally block the raise without cooperation from Congress, and he later suggested he was reconsidering his position. But so far, lawmakers have not approved a pay hike for 2019.
The administration has also floated the idea of paring back federal workers’ retirement benefits. The White House’s budget blueprint for 2018 proposed increasing employees’ pension contributions and changing the formula to reduce retirees’ annuity payments, among other cost-cutting measures. Those plans appear to be on hold for the time being.
For all the proposed cuts to raises and benefits, Tony Reardon, the president of the National Treasury Employees Union, said he’s bothered just as much by the “dismissive and disrespectful” stance he believes the White House holds toward federal workers. Even on the campaign trail, Trump called for abolishing entire federal agencies, declaring there was ”tremendous waste, fraud, and abuse″ in the ranks of the federal government.
“Even coming into power this administration talked about emptying the ‘swamp,’ as though frontline federal employees are somehow representative [of that],” said Reardon, whose union represents 150,000 workers in different agencies.
He noted that federal employees tend to earn middle-class wages and are scattered all over the country, with the overwhelming majority living outside the Washington area.
“Why are these people consistently under attack,” Reardon asked, “when all they’ve really done is take a job to do the hard work of the United States government?”