Protest signs, food pantry information, letters to Congress: Federal employee unions mobilize on brink of shutdown

Protest signs, food pantry information, letters to Congress: Federal employee unions mobilize on brink of shutdown

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With the click of a mouse, hundreds of thousands of federal workers can print out pre-designed protest signs reading, “Stop the Shutdown,” “Fund the Government” or “Congress, Do your job so I can do mine!”

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Federal workers can print out protest signs reading, “Fund the Government” 

American Federation of Government Employees, AFL-CIO


On Monday night, hundreds of federal employees who live in Maryland dialed into a telephone town hall to ask about the increasingly likely prospect that their paychecks and and some of their benefits may be halted.

In Oak Park, Illinois, Treasury employees share information informally by phone about food banks, applications for unemployment and car pooling to save money on gasoline.

With just days until a federal government shutdown, which would furlough and stop paychecks to federal employees nationwide, the major federal government employee unions are mobilizing to convince Congress to cut a deal and end the impasse. They’re organizing meetings and educational seminars for their members and conducting media campaigns. 

Barring any breakthroughs, they’re also urging federal employees to hunker down and get ready.

“I’m telling them to prepare for the worst and save as much money as you can,” said Everett Kelley, the president of the 750,000-member American Federation of Government Employees, which includes VA medical center employees, homeland security workers and federal correctional officers.

The National Treasury Employees Union, which represents Customs and Border Protection employees, Food and Drug Administration employees, National Park Service workers and the IRS workforce, said its local chapters are collecting phone numbers and personal email addresses to share updates on a shutdown with its members. The union said federal workers lose access to their government email addresses during furloughs, so the organization is trying to build up a contact list of their private phone numbers and emails.

The AFGE has drafted a model “letter to the editor” for its members to submit to local newspapers.  One sample letter reads, “While political chess reduces my pay, my expenses remain the same and my job is now at risk. I still have to pay the mortgage, the full cost of my health insurance, and put food on the table. And if I am unable to pay my bills due to this new financial hardship, I could lose my security clearance and get fired. How does this keep our nation safe and secure.”

The union has also designed blue and yellow protest signs that can be printed and wielded by federal workers or their supporters.  

Kelley, the AFGE president, told CBS News, “Some people think a shutdown only affects federal employees. But a government shutdown affects the entire country. It affects our communities. It affects our churches.”

The National Federation of Federal Employees issued an alert to its members this month, urging them to “prepare personal finances” for a possible shutdown. It advised, “Report to work as usual, unless your agency informs you in writing that you are officially furloughed. Otherwise, you risk an unexcused absence if you are not furloughed.” 

On Monday, the National Treasury Employees Union released a report stating the shutdown would impact thousands of federal workers in every U.S. congressional district: “At least 2,600 civilian federal employees live in every congressional district. The vast majority — 96% of the districts — have more than 4,000 civilian federal employees.” 

NTEU president Doreen Greenwald, who worked for the federal government for 35 years, says her organization’s local chapters are sharing guidance on how furloughed employees can apply for unemployment benefits, secondary jobs and food pantry assistance during a shutdown. Greenwald told CBS News, “Some of our members will have to continue to work, but not get paid. Some are single-income families. Some are families in which both partners work for the federal government.”

The NTEU has prepared sample letters for its union members to send to their local representative in Congress. One suggested letter reads, “As a federal employee in your district, I am writing to ask that you support America’s federal employees by passing legislation to fund federal agencies at the levels necessary to meet their missions and keep the government open.”

But many of the letters lawmakers receive around a shutdown are personal. Rep. Don Beyer, Democrat of Virginia, has released and posted some of the letters he received during the weeks-long 2018 federal shutdown. One said, “We recently found out that we are expecting a second child. At a time that we should be making every effort to save money, instead we are terrified about how we will pay our rent next month.”

Excerpt of letter sent to Beyer: 

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Constituent letter sent to Rep. Don Beyer, Democrat of Virginia

With federal agency shutdown plans still in flux and Congress stalemated, the unions are mobilizing to answer questions. 

Rep. Glenn Ivey, a first-term Democrat from Maryland who previously served as a federal employee, staged a telephone town hall between constituents and a guest speaker who represents federal employees. “Their questions are about paychecks and benefits. And the line between essential and non-essential employees is an important distinction,” Ivey said. “They want to know, ‘How long will I have to wait until I get paid?'” 

Rep. Gerry Connolly, Democrat of Virginia, who represents a large number of federal workers in his Northern Virginia congressional district, said his office is fielding a lot of questions about the looming shutdown risk. Connolly told CBS News, “All of America will feel the pain and consequences from this wholly avoidable shutdown. I am in constant contact with federal employees to try to minimize the damage done.”

There is bipartisan support of the federal workforce, which supports constituents and vital services in every state. Speaking to reporters Monday, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy said a shutdown would be painful and would hurt efforts to secure an agreement for longer-term funding for federal agencies. McCarthy said there would be no benefit to “not paying the troops and not paying our border agents.”

The unions are also rolling out “government shutdown” media strategies they’ve used several times since 2013, lining up local worker representatives, who are both union stewards and federal employees, to be interviewed by news media to explain the impact of shutdowns.

AFGE union representative Shabay Izquierdo, who works for the Transportation Security Administration in Newark, New Jersey, emphasized the pain felt by federal employees during shutdowns. Izquierdo said, “Anxiety levels are at an all-time high.  Distress levels are at an all-time high.”   That message is echoed by other union representatives in other media interviews this week.

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