Government & Politics

‘My bills don’t get shut down’: Furloughed federal workers in KC protest shutdown

Furloughed federal employees protested the government shutdown in front of the IRS offices in Kansas City Thursday, the day before most would miss their first paycheck.

For many, the main message was that they want to return to work and get paid. The rally joined others held across the country by furloughed federal workers.

In Kansas City, idled workers generally agreed to talk if they were identified only by their first names.

“My bills don’t get shut down,” said Latosha, a furloughed IRS employee at the rally.

She has car payments, rent and utilities bills. Fortunately, her creditors are willing to work with her, given the situation.

Others agreed that their calls seeking forbearance have been met with understanding. Mostly.

Andrea, a furloughed Food and Drug Administration employee at the rally, said her mortgage company told her it would depend on who owns the loan.

Like many home loan originators, it sold the loan and continues to collect payments and deal with the home buyers.

“Luckily, I had one that’s very understanding,” Andrea said.

She had less luck with her water and electricity providers. Others similarly had mixed results.

“Only one was an ass about it,” said Victoria, an IRS employee on furlough. “He said, ‘I’m sorry, we have a business to run.’”

As some passing drivers honked their horns in support, rally chants focused on the message of returning to work.

“Hey, hey, ho, ho, government shutdown got to go.”

“We have bills.”

“We have families.”

“We want to work — with pay.”

“Hey, Mr. President, we wanna work.”

The partial shutdown has split the Kansas City area’s federal workforce into three groups.

Most continue to work and receive pay, including Social Security employees because that agency’s funding for 2019 was in place before the shutdown began Dec. 22.

Agencies that don’t have funding to pay workers have required essential employees to keep working without pay. Other employees of these agencies have been furloughed — no pay and no work.

About 4,300 of the 6,000 IRS employees in Kansas City are represented by the National Treasury Employees Union. Shannon Ellis, president of the NTEU’s Chapter 66, said being called back to work without pay increases workers’ burdens.

It often means they have to pay for child care, gasoline and other expenses triggered by the trip to work, though they’re not earning money.

Ellis said furloughed IRS workers also find it tough to arrange part-time jobs. They’re held by the agency to a strict standard regarding other work they can perform. And the possibility of being called back makes them poor job candidates.

“At the drop of a hat, we have to be able to come in,” Ellis said.

The IRS is expected to recall many of its workers back to the job — but without pay — to ensure that tax refunds go out on schedule during the tax season.

Some at the rally were frustrated by the uncertainty of when all this would end.

President Donald Trump walked out of a meeting Wednesday with Democratic leaders. Trump has insisted that Congress appropriate billions of dollars for border security including a wall as part of any plan to restart idled government operations. But Congressional Democrats have rejected funding the wall. The shutdown is days short of breaking the previous record of a 21-day shutdown in 1995 and 1996.

The NTEU sued the head of the U.S. Office of Management and Budget on Wednesday seeking court orders prohibiting the IRS from working employees without paying them.

For many, this lingering shutdown is a repeat of a 2013 shutdown that left them without pay for weeks. Congress and the president retroactively agreed to pay them, including those who were furloughed and did not work.

Steve Meacham, a furloughed employee with the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Kansas City, said he’s not so sure that will happen this time.

“We’ve seen a lot of firsts in the last couple of years,” said Meacham, a vice president of the NTEU chapter that represents USDA employees here.

Meacham said back pay won’t apply to contract workers who are not direct employees of the USDA. Many have been working as the agency still has some 2018 funding. But it’s running low, and 25 contractors were released on Wednesday, Meacham said.

“There aren’t a lot of those dollars left,” he said.

Expectations that idled federal workers will receive back wages, including those not working, have led some to call this a paid vacation.

On the contrary, Ellis said.

“We’re sitting here now waiting to find out if we have enough to meet our next month’s mortgage payment, to keep our cellphones on to get the call back,” Ellis said. “It’s just a nightmare. Definitely not a vacation.”

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Mark Davis writes about business for The Kansas City Star with attention to Sprint, investing, the economy and scams. He has been a winner and finalist in national competitions held by the Society for Advancing Business Editing and Writing.