On the 33rd day of a partial government shutdown that has left hundreds of thousands without pay, union leaders and furloughed federal workers marched into the office of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Wednesday and demanded a meeting.
When office staff refused, a dozen of them took a seat in the hallway outside.
“Majority Leader McConnell, where are you?” asked Jeffrey David Cox, president of the American Federation of Government Employees.
U.S. Capitol Police officers arrested 12 protesters for staging a sit-in outside McConnell’s office. They were pulled up from the floor and led away, their arms zip-tied behind their backs. Each was charged with a misdemeanor.
The frenzied scene outside McConnell’s office — where a dozen protesters continued to chant “We want to work” and “Where is Mitch?” — was the climax to an afternoon of protests and confrontations meant to draw attention to the growing desperation of federal workers.
“Some days I cry because there is no help for us,” said Helene Lonang, a contractor. “I hope this makes Trump and the government realize we need our jobs.”
The protest, led by several unions that represent furloughed federal employees and out-of-work contractors, drew hundreds of workers to Capitol Hill. About 800,000 furloughed workers will face the loss of a second paycheck on Friday.
Protesters began by standing in silence for 33 minutes — one for each day of the longest government shutdown in U.S. history.
Inside the Hart Senate Office Building, where protest signs are banned, workers instead wrote messages on Styrofoam plates.
“Jobs not walls,” read one.
“Will work for pay,” read another.
“Please let us work,” said several more.
As they held the empty plates in their hands, several furloughed workers said they were reminded of how drastically their circumstances had changed since the shutdown began Dec. 22.
“I passed by D.C. Central Kitchen the other day and there was a line around the block, and I thought, ‘Wow, we’re usually the ones helping other people,’ ” said Tania Alfonso, 38, a furloughed federal economist. “But now we’re the ones who need help.”
She held her 2-year-old daughter on her shoulders. The girl’s small hands clutched a plate they made together. It said: “Pay my mom.”
Workers raised their empty plates toward the windows of senators’ offices that overlook the atrium where they gathered. With each minute of silence that passed, organizers rang a chime to mark another day of the government impasse, another day of no work, no pay and growing despair.
After 33 minutes, the crowd erupted into a chorus of chants: “No more food banks,” the protesters shouted. “They need paychecks!”
They waved their plates to the beat. Some clapped. Others stomped their feet.
Blake Lorenz, 75, brandished his handwritten sign. On it was one word: “Hostage.”
Lorenz, a veteran and furloughed federal worker who manages satellite communications for NASA, said it’s how he has felt since the shutdown began.
“I think we’re being used as pawns,” he said. “What does me doing my job at NASA have to do with a wall?”
Lonang, 55, scrawled a plea for back pay for federal contractors on her plate in purple marker. As a security guard at the Smithsonian, she doesn’t know if she will recoup her lost wages.
Lonang, an immigrant from Cameroon, said she’s fallen behind on her mortgage. She hasn’t been able to pay for her 16-year-old daughter’s tutoring lessons. While she usually sends money to family abroad, she said, in recent weeks she’s barely had enough to get by.
She’s begun looking for temporary work, but all she wants is her job back.
“It’s not only my family who is hurting,” she said. “I wish they would please let us go back to work.”
As the protest disbanded, dozens of unpaid workers headed to the offices of Republican senators to confront the lawmakers and their staffs over the standoff between the president and Democratic congressional leaders.
A small group of union leaders broke off in search of McConnell.
“Have y’all seen the majority leader?” Cox asked confused passersby. “He’s been missing for 33 days.”
A spokeswoman for McConnell declined to comment on the protest, or subsequent arrests, and referred instead to comments the majority leader made on the Senate floor Wednesday.
“When we vote on the president’s plan tomorrow, we’ll see what each senator decides to prioritize,” McConnell said.
Federal employees who followed the union officers to McConnell’s office took out their phones and filmed the encounter.
“He won’t even speak to us,” one woman said.
The presidents of the National Federation of Federal Employees and International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers — Randy Erwin and Paul Shearon, respectively — joined Cox in the sit-in outside McConnell’s office.
They chanted as they sat. They chanted over Capitol Police officers’ calls to clear the hall.
“Get it open, keep it open,” the protesters shouted in unison.
Congressional staffers passing in the halls cheered them on.
“Thank you guys,” a man shouted. “We appreciate you. We support you.”
Union leaders said they planned to revisit the offices of Republican senators on Thursday to ask lawmakers a series of questions, including: “Why are you still getting paid?”
Participants hoped to convince senators to vote to reopen the government and postpone the stalled debate over border security and funding for a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border.
“We want senators to see the faces of the people who are being hurt by this [shutdown], and to tell them it’s time to stop holding federal employees hostage,” said Brittany Holder, a spokeswoman for the NFFE.
The actions are part of a multiorganization strategy to ramp up protests as the shutdown slogs on.
Earlier this month, federal employees rallied outside the White House in a demonstration aimed at the president. Although the workers assembled there varied in political leanings, nearly all who were interviewed said they felt used — like pawns.
The Senate is scheduled to vote on a pair of competing bills Thursday to reopen the government — one from Democrats and one from President Trump. Neither bill appeared likely to earn the support needed to advance.
Trump’s proposal would open the government through Sept. 30, while also earmarking $5.7 billion for a border wall, granting temporary deportation protections to about 1 million undocumented immigrants and altering asylum rules — a new wrinkle that Democrats described as a non-starter.
The Democrats’ bill would fund the government through Feb. 8 without providing new money for Trump’s proposed border wall. Proponents have said the stopgap measure would allow both parties to negotiate on border security, while allowing federal employees to get back to work.
But to the workers and contractors who assembled Wednesday, the upcoming votes were of little comfort.
“They’re not going to solve this tomorrow,” said Mike Adams, 45, a federal contractor. “At this point, neither side wants to allow the other side to save face — they’re too busy playing the blame game.”
“And we’re stuck in the middle,” added Deborah Clyburn, his colleague. “They never should have let it get this far.”