Dozens of furloughed government employees lined up under a banner that read “Free food and coffee for federal employees and their families” at the #ChefsForFeds kitchen. As the longest government shutdown in U.S. history dragged on with no end in sight, several Washington-area businesses are pitching in, offering discounts to ease the financial hardship — only a government ID required.
On Wednesday, a busker played Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me” with tailored lyrics — “End the shutdown!” — as a line snaked into a Starbucks-sized space where government workers could choose between the sandwich
, quinoa with black beans, and roasted fennel and tomato soup.
“It takes some expenses off of us,” said Natalia Gandarilla, a furloughed auditor with the federal government. “We don’t have to worry about where to eat.”
Gandarilla counted herself lucky. She recently sold a house and wasn’t feeling an immediate financial pinch. But her mother, who lives in Puerto Rico — and had benefited from Andrés’s largesse after Hurricane Maria — receives federal assistance for medications that Gandarilla worried could stop if the shutdown drags out.
“This definitely needs to end,” she said. “It is affecting so many families. It is affecting us. Almost a million workers. . . . This is just a tantrum. So it has to end.”
The Nobel Peace Prize-nominated Andrés said about 5,000 meals were served by day’s end. Having served meals at humanitarian disasters from Puerto Rico to Indonesia, he said he found it “fascinating” to do such work in his hometown.
“The message is that we shouldn’t be having this in America,” he said. “Things can already go wrong on their own without our government inflicting damaging wounds on the American people.”
While nonprofits and religious organizations have assisted from the shutdown’s start, businesses in the Washington area are increasingly seeing an opportunity to reach federal workers unable to work.
There are deals on prescription drugs — including marijuana at dispensaries — and short-term loans. There are discounted haircuts and résumé-writing services. And even though it’s January, there were cheap ice cream cones.
Nick Augustine, general manager of Moorenko’s Ice Cream in Silver Spring, is giving government workers 25 percent off their scoops. Slightly cheaper ice cream on a freezing day might not change anyone’s life, Augustine said, but gestures matter.
“It was more to say, ‘Hey, you know, why not?’ ” he said. “Anything we can do to help. It works out for us, as well.”
On Capitol Hill, Laurie Gillman, owner of East City Bookshop, said one furloughed federal worker asked to delay picking up a special order put in before Christmas.
“We’re just now starting to see people getting worried,” she said.
In response, Gillman was taking 10 percent off the orders of furloughed government employees.
“We’re a community bookstore,” she said. “This is something that’s affecting our community, our city.”
Sam Pettee, director of marketing at Metropolitan Wellness Center, a medical marijuana dispensary on Capitol Hill, said about 50 federal workers had taken advantage of a 20 percent discount in the past week — despite guidance from the Office of Personnel Management that federal employees avoid using the drug.
“Some people, like those with intense muscle pain or cancer, make the decision . . . that it’s more important to take cannabis as medicine and figure out the drug test later,” he said. “We’re hoping it brings a bit of joy.”
For some, helping furloughed workers is a family affair.
Rachel Spindle, a manager of PR at Partners hair salon in Tysons Corner, was offering $10 off services and $20 off products for federal workers, a loyal customer base that keeps up to 20 stylists busy.
Spindle was also offering 32 hours of work each week to her sister, Cleo Knicely. Knicely started at a government management consulting firm after graduating from college in May but was furloughed about a week ago. She said she dreads the prospect of possibly looking for a new job after missing a paycheck.
“I guess that would be a bridge to cross when you get to it,” she said. “I like to think, at some point, the government does open. I want to be loyal to my company.”
Jennifer Dillon, general manager of Mellow Mushroom pizzeria in Herndon, was extending the store’s 15 percent military discount to government employees.
She said it was too early to know how many workers had taken advantage of the deal. But after she promoted it on her social media platforms, her franchise filled up this past Friday.
“We have so many people living in this area working in the government or as government contractors,” she said. “I have friends furloughed. . . . I wanted to do something to help out.”
Back in downtown Washington, the #ChefsForFeds kitchen, run by volunteer chefs, will continue to operate daily from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Andrés said the location of the kitchen was important to him. He first came to the United States in the Spanish navy and on Wednesday was serving meals near the Navy Memorial. The location is about halfway between Congress and the White House, which Andrés saw as symbolic, since compromise might be needed to bring the shutdown to a close.
“Some of the best things happen around a table,” he said. “We don’t see political colors. We see what we can do to fix problems and feed people.”