Furloughed federal workers feel like ‘pawns’ in shutdown fight

Border Patrol agents were among the “essential” government employees who had to report to work during the government shutdown. A union official said having to work without support staff and with uncertainty about pay makes a hard job even harder for agents. (Photo by C N/Creative Commons)

WASHINGTON – The government shutdown that began Friday was short-lived, but that doesn’t mean the thousands of federal workers in Arizona who were sent home Monday or made to work without pay feel any less put-upon.

The state’s more than 55,000 federal workers were back on the job Tuesday, after Congress voted Monday night to extend the continuing resolution on the budget that had expired Friday, sparking the shutdown. But the latest funding bill was extended for less than three weeks.

That left some worried that they would be right back in the same situation on Feb. 9, the day after the current continuing resolution is set to expire.

“It’s almost like having an abusive boss, where you don’t know when they’ll drop the hammer on you,” said Ryan Mims, legislative political organizer for the American Federation of Government Employees, District 12, which includes Arizona.

The shutdown began Friday when the Senate could not muster the 60 votes to stop a Democratic filibuster of the budget bill, over demands that it include protections for the undocumented immigrants known as “Dreamers.”

Each side blamed the other for the shutdown while negotiations dragged on through the weekend. In the end, Democrats agreed to let the budget resolution pass and Senate Republican leaders promised to hold a vote on a bill to protect recipients of the Deferred Action of Childhood Arrivals program, which President Donald Trump suspended in September.

The Senate voted 81-18 late Monday to approve the budget, followed several hours later by the House’s 266-150 approval.

“The government employees are being used as pawns,” said Harley Hembd, AFGE’s Arizona national representative, who blamed both parties for the shutdown.

A government shutdown does not mean the loss of all government services. Mail is still delivered because the Postal Service is separately funded, and agencies whose budgets were already approved, such the Veterans Administration hospitals, continue to operate.

In agencies that are affected, workers are divided into essential and non-essential categories. Essential workers – such as Border Patrol agents and Transportation Security Administration screeners – report to work, even though they are not paid until the government reopens.

Mims noted that federal employees already have stressful jobs, and the added uncertainty of their futures only makes those jobs more trying.

That’s definitely true for Border Patrol agents, whose normally challenging jobs have the added stress of having to work without support staff during shutdowns, said Brandon Judd, president of the Border Patrol Council.

“It made our job a lot more difficult, it made securing the border a lot more difficult,” Judd said. “Morale goes way down during a government shutdown.”

Judd said workers were left asking themselves: “Did I just work for free?” and “When will I get paid?”

Non-essential workers are furloughed without pay, although the White House has agreed to support back pay for those workers now that the government is back in business.

Mario Martinez, a Defense Department worker who audits federal contracts, said he was classified as a non-essential employee and sent home without pay Monday. He said he doesn’t blame both sides, calling the shutdown a “case of failed leadership” that he attributed to Trump’s refusal to agree to a DACA deal.

Federal employees still worry that the government may shut down again in a matter of days, with Mims saying most workers are “concerned that this (budget deal) is just a Band-Aid.” Judd agreed.

“We can be right back in the same situation on Feb. 8,” Judd said.

Martinez isn’t sure whether he’ll be compensated for the lost day of work.

“Unpaid time off means less food on the table,” he said. “We’re doing our best.”