'I live paycheck to paycheck': Federal workers to rally for their jobs at White House

John Bacon

Federal workers and their supporters will rally for their jobs Thursday outside the White House as the partial government shutdown rolls through its third week with no end in sight.

Almost half of the 800,000 civilian federal  employees are not working, and even those that are won't be paid until the stalemate is settled. For most, the furlough becomes real Friday when they miss their first payday.

Leisyka Lee, a single mom who has worked for the Bureau of Land Management for 17 years, says her fragile finances require a deal soon.

"I live paycheck to paycheck," she said. "I earn a living wage when I work. I love my job and I just want to get back to work."

PHILADELPHIA, PA - JANUARY 08: David Fitzpatrick, 64, a Park Ranger, holds an American flag and a placard stating "You're fired" with "Smokey the Bear," after a protest rally with furloughed federal workers and area elected officials in front of Independence Hall on January 8, 2019 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The government shutdown, now lasting 18 days, marks the second longest United States in history, affecting about 800,000 federal employees. (Photo by Mark Makela/Getty Images) ORG XMIT: 775278689 ORIG FILE ID: 1079379668

In Madison, Wisconsin, Carl Houtman has spent the last 21 years working for the Forest Service. The chemical engineer said he is the primary wage earner for his family of four – including two in college.

"Guess what happens this time of year – tuition bills," he said. Property tax. Christmas credit cards. This is absolutely the worst time of year to miss a paycheck."

President Donald Trump has said he would be willing to keep the shutdown going for a year or more if Democrats don't yield to his demands for $5.7 billion toward funding a border wall. Talks broke down Wednesday, and it was unclear when or if they would restart.

Trump has suggested that liberals should feel compelled to go along, claiming that "most of the people not getting paid are Democrats." He also has said federal workers support his plans for the wall and his decision to force the shutdown.

"The president has a cavalier attitude because he has no idea what it's like to rely on a regular paycheck," said Steve Lenkart, spokesman for the National Federation of Federal Workers.

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Houtman said Trump's dismissive attitude to federal workers dampens their hopes for a quick settlement.

"The whole drum beat in the conservative media about how federal employees don't really do anything, that we are not important, it adds to the stress," Houtman said.

The federation, which represents more than 100,000 federal workers, is co-sponsoring the rally. Lenkart said the rally Thursday will include congressional leaders and workers who will explain how the shutdown affects them, their families, their agencies and Americans across the country. 

On Tuesday, more than 200 furloughed workers rallied at the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia. Rep. Brendan Boyle, R-Pa., among those in attendance, said more than 11,000 federal workers are affected by the shutdown.

“President Trump has been loud and clear – he doesn’t care that hundreds of thousands of public servants aren’t getting their paychecks because of his manufactured funding crisis," Boyle said.  "But his words have consequences. Federal workers ... are struggling to keep their families in their homes, keep the lights on, and put food on the table."

Some workers even started GoFundMe campaigns, but the Office of Government Ethics warned that standard ethics apply. Such donations would likely be considered gifts, and rules for accepting gifts are stringent.

The U.S. Coast Guard thought it was being helpful when it posted a tip sheet with a list of suggestions such as holding garage sales, babysitting or tutoring to make ends meet. One last option - declaring bankruptcy. The tip sheet was later removed from the agency's website. 

The work the employees do is also affected. Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said his agency has cut back significantly on safety inspections of domestic food.

Lee, a former firefighter who now does education outreach for BLM, said vegetation fuel reduction work normally performed this time of year in the west is on hold, which could loom large when fire season rolls around in the spring.

Houtman said he has research reports sitting idle on his desk, and he has a graduate student hamstrung in her efforts to complete experiments required for her thesis.

But he admits the financial issues remain front and center. A kind neighbor brought frozen food from their freezer to help his family out, he said.

"We are not that desperate yet," he said. "But we took the food."

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'I live paycheck to paycheck': Federal workers to rally for their jobs at White House