How do you cope with President Trump’s partial government shutdown?
Watching his frightful Oval Office address to the nation Tuesday night certainly didn’t help. If you are a person lacking government services or a federal employee lacking your job, your pay and government services, Trump ignored you.
He expressed no concern for the impact of his shutdown — almost three weeks old — over funding for a border wall. The closest he came to that was this fiction: “The federal government remains shut down for one reason and one reason only: because Democrats will not fund border security.”
The shutdown remains because he and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) reject reasonable, House-approved legislation that would allow government to fully function.
Instead, feds are coping with his shutdown in different ways.
A number of federal correctional officers, working without knowing when they will get paid, have called in sick — as in sick of the shutdown.
More than 400 people used their time off Tuesday to attend a series of classes that American University offered for free to furloughed feds. Courses included workplace mindfulness, effective presentations and starting a podcast.
The particularly relevant “Getting to Yes/Negotiations” should be required for Trump, who proudly shut down a major segment of the government in a selfish fit over the Democrats' refusal to provide more than $5 billion for his border wall. Democrats could use that course, too. But it is Trump, aided by Senate Republicans, who will not accept clearly reasonable legislation that would fund parts of the government not directly related to the wall through the end of the fiscal year, while providing the Department of Homeland Security funds for a month, during which talks could continue.
No matter how the 800,000 federal employees, who are shut out of work or required to work with no guarantee of the next payday, are spending their time, they are united in the disgust and anxiety generated by the shutdown over funding for a southern border wall.
“It’s very discouraging,” said Jill Aksamit, an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission statistician, who joined the federal service in September. “I just never expected something like this to happen.” She was among more than 400 federal employees who participated in American University’s program of skills and management training.
An indication of her sense of mission, a commitment shared by federal employees generally, is her misplaced sense of guilt. Misplaced because the guilt belongs to Trump and his congressional supporters.
“I feel guilty that I’m not working,” Aksamit said. “There are people out there that need help, and I could be helping them.”
While she was sharpening her skills, some Bureau of Prisons correctional officers decided Trump’s shutdown makes them ill.
“Many of them are refusing to come to work,” said Eric Young, president of the American Federation of Government Employees Council of Prison Locals. “We're in a real bad situation.”
BOP documents instructed employees that they “are required to work” if they are not among the staffers exempted from the furlough. Employees required to work without knowing when they will get paid could be investigated and disciplined for refusing to work if their sick calls are found illegitimate. BOP employees have not missed a full check yet, Young said. But it appears likely that will happen Friday.
Transportation security officers at some airports also have experienced similar ailments.
Prison officers can work 16-hour shifts, sometimes 70 to 80 hours a week, Young said, adding to their job- or shutout-related disorders.
“When they are exhausted . . . if they feel incapacitated to be able to report to work, they could call in sick” under the union contract, Young added. “And that’s exactly what the situation is right now, and it’s occurring on a rapid scale because we’re already short-staffed.”
Adding to the frustration of correctional officers worried about paying bills is that inmates continue to receive pay for their prison jobs.
“It’s even more insulting that federal inmates are being paid regularly,” Young said, “while federal correctional officers who staff our prisons and had their annual leave canceled and [were] called back to supervise those inmates are forced to work and face uncertainty over when and if they’ll receive their next paycheck.”
Inmates earn 12 cents to 40 cents an hour for work that includes food service, plumbing, painting and groundskeeping. The shutdown does not affect their pay because inmate wages are not appropriated by Congress. Instead, prison jobs are through a self-sustaining government company that sells services and goods from inmates.
BOP had no comment on Young’s remarks or about the sick calls.
For Aksamit, the day at American University was an opportunity to recharge during a depressing period. “It helps me get my brain out of kind of a funk and focusing on what can I do,” she said. “I’m ready to get back to work and using some of the things they taught us.”
Unfortunately for the federal government, the shutdown taught Aksamit other lessons.
The shutdown “put me off federal employment,” she said. “There’s some kind of trust I feel that is gone for me now. I thought that public employment is always going to be a stable, a stable place to be, a safe place to be. . . . Now I just feel like all bets are off.”
If Uncle Sam loses the faith of people like Aksamit, we all lose.