WASHINGTON – On the 33rd day of a partial government shutdown that has left hundreds of thousands of federal workers without pay, some staged a sit-in Wednesday outside the offices of the senators they blame for helping to keep the government closed.
The protest, led by union leaders from the National Federation of Federal Employees, was meant to draw attention to the plight of federal workers – many of whom have had to dig into their savings, take on side jobs and seek help from food banks and other charitable programs to stay afloat.
Twelve protesters, many of them union leaders, were arrested Wednesday.
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Hundreds of out-of-work federal workers, union officials and supporters stood in silence for 33 minutes – one for each day of the longest government shutdown in American history. Hundreds of thousands of workers will face the loss of a second paycheck on Friday.
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.
The workers held the plates high, toward the windows of senators’ offices that overlook the atrium where they gathered.
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With each minute that passed, organizers rang a chime that marked another day of the government impasse, another day of no work, no pay and growing desperation.
After 33 minutes, the crowd erupted into a chorus of chants: “No more food banks,” protesters shouted. “We 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 furloughed federal worker who manages satellite communications for NASA, said it’s how he has felt since the shutdown began on Dec. 22.
“I think we’re being used as pawns,” he said. “What does me doing my job at NASA have to do with a wall?”
Helene Lonang, 55, scrawled a plea for back pay for federal contractors on her plate. As a security guard at the Smithsonian, she is not sure she will be able to recoup her weeks of 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. “Some days I cry because there is no help for us. I hope this makes Trump and the government realize we need our jobs. … I wish they would please let us go back to work.”
Protesters called out for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., as they wound their way to the Russell Senate Office Building.
“Have y’all seen the majority leader?” union leaders asked passersby. “He’s been missing for 33 days.”
After asking for a meeting with the senator, and being refused, about a dozen protesters sat outside McConnell’s office.
“We’re not moving,” they chanted. “Where is Mitch?”
They chanted over Capital Police officers calling to clear the hall. They chanted as their hands were zip-tied. They chanted as they were led away.
“Get it open, keep it open,” the protesters shouted in unison.
Federal employees rallied outside the White House earlier this month in a demonstration aimed at the president. Though the workers assembled there varied in political leanings, nearly all said they felt used – like pawns.
Wednesday’s protest began at noon in the Hart building, where about 50 lawmakers have offices.
Union leaders and a handful of federal workers then proceeded to the offices of senators, whom they lobbied for a vote on a bill that would reopen the government through September 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 demonstration came one day before the Senate is scheduled to vote on a pair of competing bills to reopen the government – one from Democrats and one from President Donald 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 nonstarter.
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.