Lately it’s cold and gray in Washington. The days are short, the nights are long and the president has vowed to keep the government shut down for months, even years if he does not get what he wants. A southern border lined with “artistically designed steel slats,” apparently.
For so many languishing federal workers — public servants alternately characterized as deep state antagonists or bloated bureaucrats — it’s all too much.
Over two years, the Trump administration has dealt blow after blow to government employees — budget cuts, hiring freezes, inept Cabinet secretaries and, for some, open hostility to their fundamental mission. President Trump promised to shake up Washington, and he has. But the country’s 2 million federal workers have mostly soldiered on, believing in the value of their work even if they question decisions coming out of the White House.
In what some see as the ultimate insult, almost half of them were told to stay home. Do not pass “Go.” Do not collect any dollars.
Randy Erwin, national president of the National Federation of Federal Employees, says many of his members and their departments have been undermined since Trump took office. “A lot of these agencies have been starved for resources, which has made carrying out the mission difficult,” he explains. “With this shutdown, the mission has gone from difficult to impossible.”
We talked to six of these workers, some of whom requested anonymity to protect their jobs. They told us about their sleepless nights, creeping anxieties and financial distress. All of it an affront, they said, the nadir of indignation wrought by two years of government work under Trump.
If the president of the United States said anything that made a lick of sense when he toured the smoldering ruins of Northern California last year, you’ll have to forgive this particular federal fighter if he can’t immediately bring it to mind. He hasn’t been sleeping much since the furlough and is frustrated beyond words.
“I’m so exhausted,” he said, two weeks deep in the shutdown. “I’m floundering. My whole purpose and routine is a little off.”
He tried to think back to November — the end of the deadliest fire year in his 20-year U.S. Forest Service career, not to mention in the state’s history. Trump had posed for news cameras near the destroyed town of Paradise, which the president thought was called “Pleasure,” and lectured Californians as if they were children with messy rooms. “You’ve got to take care of the floors,” he said. “You know, the floors of the forests.”
“The guy just insulted victims of the fire, as they and their family members were still fleeing,” the firefighter said. “He was talking to Chris Wallace about how he saw firefighters raking under a bush and he didn’t know why it hadn’t been raked. It doesn’t make any sense.”
But now that you mention it, Trump said one thing that rang true to an old smoke eater. “He said we need more forest management,” the firefighter said. “And yeah, we absolutely need to.”
Tight budgets notwithstanding, he said, his crew spends each winter clearing out excess brush and burning it in piles. Taking care of the floors, so to speak.
That’s what he would be doing right now, he said, had the shutdown not cut off the funding and forced his crew to stop.
“We’re not allowed,” he said.
Next summer, there will be that much more kindling on the forest floor, waiting to spark. Waiting for a president to make a photo tour across the wreckage.
These are the things a U.S. Forest Service firefighter thinks about when he can’t work and can’t sleep.
“I enforce civil rights for a living. I try to enforce equality for all,” says Jamie Rodny, a 35-year-old with a law degree, who was recruited into public service under a presidential management fellows program in 2011.
But her work as a federal investigator with the Department of Housing and Urban Development has been made more challenging over the past two years under the Trump administration. The federal hiring freeze has resulted in a “brain drain” she says, as the positions of people who quit or retire go unfilled, leaving more work for the staffers who remain. There has been no opportunity for promotion and their complaint intake branch dwindled from about 40 workers to “a skeleton crew of five people.”
Rodny, who lives in Los Angeles with her husband and 3-year-old son, knows that she earns less than she could in the private sector and was already frustrated with the agency’s parental leave policy. The salary freeze, government shutdown and pay furlough is, she says, “salt in a really big wound.”
Rodny scoffed when she heard recently that Trump said the government has no problem retaining talented professionals.
“Are you serious? I’m one foot out the door,” she says. “The federal government recruited me. The federal government has trained me. I’m an outstanding employee — the highest rating you can get is ‘outstanding’ and I got ‘outstanding’ on my last review. And then what do you do? You punish me. You make me not want to work for you anymore.”
The better part of a decade with the National Park Service took a ranger to some of the most beautiful places he knew to exist. His job was to learn about the land and share its story with visitors — to teach them to preserve it for those who would come next.
“Parks are the most intimate space for people to study their history, their geology, their climate history,” the ranger said. “The Park Service as a meeting ground for the American experience is unrivaled.”
After Trump became president, nearly 2 million acres of once-protected land were opened up for potential drilling. The new interior secretary spoke of exploiting the land for its energy. Over the past two years, the ranger said, his supervisor warned him against speaking to visitors about the threat of climate change.
“We take our role seriously as non-politically opinionated people,” he said. Now “I have to retract fact and become a politically aware park ranger.”
Still, he said, he never considered giving up. The job felt like a calling. But on Dec. 22, they gave him no choice.
“It’s humiliating to tell people that my job no longer matters for this place,” the ranger said. “It’s heartbreaking to see the place you’ve been compelled to work become something you can’t protect.”
One marine biologist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says that since Trump took office, morale among her colleagues has been “looooow — very low.” Because she works in conservation, she knows there’s not a lot of White House support for their mission. (See: Trump’s sons with their big game hunting trophies.)
This staffer, who was attracted to government work because it seemed to offer stability, says she thinks NOAA has been protected from budget cuts faced by other environmental agencies because it operates under the Department of Commerce. But they still feel hostility to their cause.
“Day to day it’s easy for us to be frustrated. ‘Why are we doing this?’ No one cares. No one pays attention,” she says. “But we know if we left it would be ‘Yes men’ or nobody to fill the job — which is far worse in most of our opinions.”
“Our job is noble,” the worker says.
A lifelong employee of the federal government, she is approaching retirement from deep within the bureaucracy of the Department of Homeland Security in Washington. She holds one of those unglamorous-but-someone-has-to-do-it roles that keeps an agency with a quarter-million employees from disintegrating on a granular level. Her long career is essentially a chronology of abandoned ideals.
She was raised in a family that revered the U.S. government, and she carried that reverence into the federal workforce when she joined it after high school.
When reverence faded, there was still the sense of purpose. Her voice — grogged with a cold in the second week of the shutdown — brightens when she recalls that long period when “we had a mission, we believed in our management.”
She lost that feeling shortly after Trump took office, about the time she noticed a change in department communiques distributed by Homeland Security’s top officials.
Prior to the Trump administration, department leaders sent out emails notifying the entire staff about agents who died in the line of duty. Officials under Trump began sending out notices that seemed overtly political, she said.
“It seems like propaganda. Anything about the wall, I don’t want to read about it.”
Trump’s campaign-promised border wall kept showing up in her inbox. She tried to put it out of her mind and carry on the work. Until last month, when Trump decided the wall was more important than her job.
When she goes back to work, assuming she ever goes back, she isn’t sure what will be left of nobility.
Gary Morton has been an employee of the federal government since 1981. He remembers when he started out and an older colleague promised him it was a good place to work, a place to build a career.
And over almost four decades that’s been true, but he doesn’t think young people will see it that way now.
“When people join an organization, when they take an oath, they want to have the resources necessary — free of political influence — so they can do their job,” says Morton, who works at the EPA. “And when employees have dreams, futures, careers that are interrupted by forces outside of their control, it makes you wonder, ‘Why should I continue here?’ When you have a president who time and time again uses executive orders to punish federal employees, what message does that send?”
Morton, who is president of a local union representing EPA workers, says he’s never seen his co-workers so depressed.
“It’s been no secret the [Trump administration’s] disdain for EPA and our policies,” he says. “So we were demonized and when you add in the combination of sequestration, budget cuts, pay freezes, buyouts, realignment, the agency’s refusal to backfill positions when people leave and increased work assignments, it has led to a situation of low morale.”
Morton worries about his colleagues who have bills to pay. He worries about the Superfund cleanups that aren’t happening and the permits that aren’t getting processed. Mostly he worries that everyday folks will pay the price for political ineptitude.
“It’s like a civil war. We’re all Americans. But Americans are getting in the way of Americans helping America.”