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Commerce secretary doesn’t understand why unpaid federal workers use food banks

Trump officials have suggested furloughed federal workers are getting free vacation and questioned why they are going to homeless shelters for food. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post)

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross on Thursday said he doesn’t understand why federal workers are visiting food banks during the partial government shutdown, saying they should instead seek low-interest loans from banks and credit unions to supplement their lost wages.

“I know they are, and I don’t really quite understand why,” Ross said on CNBC when asked about federal workers going to food banks. Ross is a billionaire and a longtime friend of President Trump.

His comment drew immediate criticism from top Democrats.

“Is this the ‘let them eat cake’ kind of attitude?” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said. “Or call your father for money?”

In his television interview, Ross repeatedly stressed that federal workers should simply take out loans to cover their expenses while the government was shut down. He acknowledged they would have to likely pay some interest, but he said it should help them cover costs.

“The idea that it’s paycheck or zero is not a really valid idea,” he said. “There’s no reason why some institution wouldn’t be willing to lend.”

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Ross leads one of the agencies that is directly affected by the shutdown that began Dec. 22, and more than 20,000 of his employees haven’t been paid for weeks.

Later Thursday, when asked about Ross’s comments, Trump replied. “Perhaps he should have said it differently. He’s done a great job.”

The White House is working to quell a growing anger among the 800,000 federal workers who are scheduled to miss their second paychecks this week, as many have begun calling in sick or refusing to show up for work. The Trump administration has scrambled to try to deflect the shutdown’s effect on the economy, but they’ve done this in part by requiring thousands of unpaid federal employees to continue doing their jobs.

Lawmakers were prepared last month to vote on a government funding bill that would avoid the shutdown, but Trump decided two days before a key deadline that he wouldn’t support any bill that didn’t include $5.7 billion for a wall along the Mexico border. This led to a clash with Democrats, and large parts of the government ran out of money on Dec. 22, freezing the pay of many employees.

Many of those workers are beginning to revolt, either calling in sick or saying they can’t afford gasoline. But Ross appeared to inaccurately convey the type of workers who are not showing up.

“It’s kind of disappointing that the air traffic controllers are calling in sick in pretty large number,” Ross said.

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In fact, there has not been an increase in the number of air traffic controllers calling in sick.

Doug Church, spokesman for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, emphatically denies Ross’s statement.

“We are not seeing an increase in sickouts,” Church said. “If it’s happening anywhere, we would know it.”

The Transportation Security Administration has reported a marked increase in the number of security screeners and others who are not reporting for work, however.

Ross’s sort of grin-and-bear-it line is similar to the position Trump has taken, saying he thinks federal workers will make “adjustments” during the shutdown. Many employees are reluctant to quit, because they would lose benefits they have accrued over years. So they are trying to see how long they can hold on financially as the shutdown shows no sign of ending.

Food banks nationwide have reported a spike in visits, and some have begun setting up services in discreet locations to help federal workers who are worried about the stigma of accepting free food.

So far, most comments from top White House officials have tried to downplay the impact on the federal workforce, and Ross’s words on Thursday drew a quick response from Democrats.

“Those comments are appalling and reveal the administration’s callous indiffernce towards the federal workers it is treating as pawns,” Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D.-N.Y.) said.

Trump has signed a bill into law that would repay federal workers for their lost wages when the shutdown ends, but he is also preparing for the shutdown to stretch on for several more months. Trump has demanded that Congress appropriate the wall money, and Democrats have said they will not support it.

Ross also tried to downplay the broader economic impact of the 800,000 workers missing their pay for a protracted period of time.

Wilber Ross says federal workers should take out a loan. His agency’s own credit union is charging nearly 9 percent

“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 a percent on our” economy, Ross said. “So it’s not like it’s a gigantic number overall.”

Ross’s jab at the air traffic controllers came a day after organizations that represent them, as well as pilots and flight attendants, warned that the shutdown was causing major safety and security risks.

“In our risk-averse industry, we cannot even calculate the level of risk currently at play, nor predict the point at which the entire system will break,” the groups said. “It is unprecedented.”

- Ashley Halsey III contributed to this report.