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As shutdown drags on, unpaid federal workers say they’re ‘pawns in somebody’s game’

Hundreds of federal workers rallied and listened to speakers at the headquarters of the AFL-CIO before they marched to an area in front of the White House Thursday. Washington Post photo by Michael S. Williamson

ST. PAUL -- Federal employees expected to work during the government shutdown despite missing paychecks Friday, Jan. 11, have a simple message for politicians.

“Our paychecks are being used as pawns in somebody’s game,” said William Axford, who works at the Federal Medical Center, a prison in Rochester, Minn. “That needs to stop.”

The partial shutdown of the federal government hit 21 days Friday, leaving about 800,000 workers — including many in Minnesota —across nine federal departments either furloughed or working without pay. President Donald Trump and Congress have been unable to settle a dispute about whether to fund a barrier on the southern border and reopen the government.

Trump and many Republicans say the border wall is necessary to keep the U.S. safe. Democrats argue a wall wouldn’t be effective and it would be better to fund a variety of other border security efforts. They also say Trump promised Mexico would pay for the wall.

Sen. Tina Smith, a Democrat, visited Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport on Friday to discuss the shutdown’s impact on federal workers like Axford and TSA workers. She detailed a bill she’s sponsoring to guarantee federal contractors will get back pay after the shutdown is resolved.

Rank-and-file workers typically get their lost pay, even if they weren’t able to come to work, but contractors aren’t so lucky.

“This shutdown is wasteful, unnecessary and increasingly harmful to so many people,” Smith said.

Workers share their stories

Smith told the story of Joseph Daskalakis of Lakeville, an air traffic controller whose son Oliver was born prematurely on New Year’s Eve and is only able to be treated at a hospital out of his insurance network. The shutdown has kept Daskalakis from updating his insurance to cover Oliver’s treatment.

“I take solace in what matters most: Oliver is getting a little stronger and a little closer to home every day,” Daskalakis wrote in a letter to Smith asking her to do whatever she could to end the shutdown.

“Think of the stress this family is going through,” Smith said.

Axford and Celia Hann, a 16-year TSA worker and union leader, described how missing a paycheck can be devastating for some workers.

“Regardless of where you stand on the issues at the center of this shutdown, I think most people can agree that nobody deserves to be working without getting paid,” Hann said. “People need to get back to work. People need to do their jobs and get paid for it. The shutdown needs to end.”

Shutdown felt in Minnesota

So far, nearly 1,000 federal workers in Minnesota have filed for unemployment benefits, according to the state Department of Employment and Economic Development. Smith said she would support exploring legislation that would allow federal employees working without pay to also receive some type of aid.

Having part of the federal government closed for three weeks is affecting more than just workers’ paychecks. First-time homebuyers can’t close on sales, farmers are unable to get short-term loans to prepare for spring planting, and money for food and vehicle inspections is drying up.

Minnesota leaders assess impact

Myron Frans, commissioner of Minnesota Management and Budget, is scheduled to update lawmakers Monday on the shutdown’s impact on state government.

Minnesota acts as a conduit for roughly $1 billion every month of federal “pass-through” funding for programs like food stamps and road maintenance.

So far, Minnesota officials haven’t had to curtail any programs because of a lack of federal money. But state leaders may soon have to make some tough decisions about how long the state can continue to pick up Washington’s tab.

“Next week, we will be assessing the state employees funded by federal programs,” Frans said, adding that he will be recommending to Gov. Tim Walz if the state will have to start “sending layoff notices.”

Frans is also worried about the indirect impact on the state economy. He said the uncertainty can impact everything from consumer purchasing to travel plans.

“This is starting to have serious economic effects,” Frans said. “The more that this shutdown creates economic uncertainty the more likely it is to have a negative economic effect.”