POLITICS

Wilbur Ross Shrugs Off Shutdown: Federal Workers Will 'Eventually' Get Paid

"I don't quite understand why" they're using food pantries, the commerce secretary said.

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross on Thursday downplayed the ongoing partial government shutdown’s impacts on federal workers, claiming they should simply take out loans to cover the costs of necessities.

Ross, a wealthy former banker, told CNBC’s “Squawk Box” that he can’t figure out why some of the more than 800,000 unpaid federal employees need to rely on food pantries after missing paychecks during the shutdown, which entered its 34th day Thursday.

“There are reports that there are some federal workers who are going to homeless shelters to get food,” host Andrew Ross Sorkin said.

“Well, I know they are but I don’t really quite understand why because ... the obligations that they would undertake say borrowing from the bank or credit union are in effect federally guaranteed,” Ross responded. “So the 30 days of pay which some people will be out ― there’s no real reason why they shouldn’t be able to get a loan against it.”

Alex Karp, CEO of government contractor Palantir Technologies, told CNBC on Wednesday that the shutdown is “damaging for the American brand.” Asked about Karp’s comments, Ross called them “hyperbole” and claimed 800,000 federal workers going without pay wouldn’t hurt the overall gross domestic product that badly.

“I think that’s a great deal of hyperbole,” Ross told CNBC. “Put it in perspective: You’re talking about 800,000 workers and while I feel sorry for individuals who have hardship cases, 800,000 workers if they never got their pay ― which is not the case they will eventually get it ― but if they never got it, you’re talking about a third of the percent on our GDP. So it’s not like it’s a gigantic number overall.”

The shutdown ― the longest such closure in U.S. history ― appears to have no end in sight. President Donald Trump has vowed to veto a spending bill that would reopen federal agencies affected by the shutdown if it does not include $5.7 billion toward his long-promised wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. Democrats have steadfastly denied his demand, calling the wall ineffective and immoral.

Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of federal employees have been furloughed or, if deemed essential, continue to work without pay. Though they will likely receive back pay once the government reopens, many are struggling to pay rent or buy necessities in the interim. And it’s estimated hundreds of thousands ― if not millions ― of government contractor workers will likely never receive retroactive pay.

Workers across several federal agencies ― including Coast Guard members, Transportation Security Administration screeners and others ― have been consumed with anxiety as they struggle to put food on their tables, afford their medicines and pay their mortgages.

Ross, whose net worth is an estimated $700 million, called it “disappointing” that air traffic controllers going without pay during the shutdown have been calling in sick.

“Remember this: They are eventually going to be paid,” he told CNBC.

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