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The Last Shutdown Shows How Precarious Federal Jobs Have Become

Private companies profited off the shutdown as federal workers living paycheck to paycheck struggled to get by.

Furloughed federal workers and those aligned with them protest the partial government shutdown in the Hart Senate Office Building January 23, 2019, in Washington, D.C.

As U.S. Congress attempts to avert yet another shutdown, federal workers and contractors are still recovering from the longest government closure in American history. President Trump used workers as a bargaining chip in his xenophobic demand for a border wall, with many turning to food pantries or the more than 2,000 GoFundMe campaigns to make ends meet. Those 35 days of lost wages exposed how precarious federal labor has become after decades of rhetoric meant to delegitimize the work of the public sector.

One illustrating point: the sweeping privatization of public jobs. In an economy where one in five jobs are held by contract workers, the federal government’s turn toward privatization translates to unstable wages, lack of benefits and temporary employment for the workers who clean, serve food and guard government buildings.

Despite the shutdown’s end, an estimated four million federally contracted workers from private companies have still not received a paycheck for the five weeks of work they lost due to the government’s closing. Federal contractors include support staff in federal buildings and are among the lowest paid federal workers, earning between $450 and $650 per week. While Congressional Democrats have introduced legislation to give contract workers back pay, it remains unclear if the bill will pass.

Many contract workers took out loans in order to pay their bills – a strategy endorsed by Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in one of the administration’s many “let them eat cake” moments. Even as public workers suffered from the effects of the shutdown, Ross encouraged private business to profit.

The Trump administration has a long pattern of pushing public sector responsibilities to private profiteers. In June of 2017, Trump put forth plans to privatize the work of air traffic controllers, whose sickouts played a crucial role in nearly halting air traffic on the East Coast the day the shutdown ended. Trump’s plans may never have come to fruition, but they served as another threat for a set of employees that have already faced some of the most egregious anti-labor actions from the executive branch.

Trump’s plans hearken back to 1981, when air controllers famously walked off the job to demand improved wages and working conditions. Then-President Reagan fired the striking workers, undermining the power of unions for decades. Despite this – perhaps because of it – the Trump administration inducted Reagan into the Labor Department’s hall of fame.

Sara Nelson, the head of the Association of Flight Attendants, spoke to the long history of anti-labor politics and its effects on the public sector while advocating for the shutdown’s end in January. “For years, the right has vilified federal workers as nameless, faceless bureaucrats,” Nelson said, herself representing a private-sector union. “But the truth is, they are air traffic controllers, they’re food inspectors, they’re transportation security inspectors, and law enforcement. They are the people who live and work in our communities and they are being hurt.”

The erosion of union rights in no doubt plays a role in the unstable financial circumstances of federal workers today. The shutdown illuminated many of those circumstances. One federal employee, Amy Fellows, told NPR she had a negative bank account balance three weeks into the closure and was skipping meals to ensure that her children had enough food. Even so, she continued to work – sometimes up to sixteen hours per day – due to her designation as “essential personnel.”

Under normal circumstances, 78 percent of federal workers like Amy Fellows already live paycheck-to-paycheck. During the shutdown, 800,000 federal workers were either furloughed or working without pay. Some took on babysitting and substitute teaching for supplemental income. A tip sheet from the Coast Guard suggested workers hold yard sales to get by. Meanwhile, gig economy companies like Uber and Airbnb gained a new source of employees and hosts.

In the finance sector, private institutions got yet another win as workers turned to payday lenders and pawn shops to make ends meet. Adding insult to injury, the Trump administration slashed payday loan protections days after the shutdown ended, heightening the already severe risks associated with the predatory debt traps, which can boast interest rates as high as 400 percent.

Still, workers found creative ways to exert pressure on the Trump administration. Airport workers staged sickouts, widely considered a factor in ending the political stalemate. At the Capitol, labor groups came together to demand Senate Republicans “shut down the shutdown,” promising to occupy the Hart Senate Office Building every day until the government reopened. Twelve demonstrators were arrested on the first day of the protests.

The Association of Flight Attendants also renewed calls for mass demonstrations to support federal workers if the government does shut down again. Nelson has been directing the public to to learn more. Notably, flight attendants are not federal employees. Yet Nelson and her union have led the way in pointing out how government shutdowns impact the financial security and physical safety of far more than only the federal workers who go unpaid.

“Aviation doesn’t work without federal workers,” Nelson wrote in a USA Today op-ed,pointing out the growing safety concerns over another shutdown. That’s why Nelson, and many others, are offering up new possibilities for resistance and solidarity among public and private sector employees.We have a duty to protect ourselves and the American people from the danger,” Nelson wrote. “Working people have power when we come together. If Congress chooses the chaos of a continued lockout, we will use that power.”

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