At forty-three years old, Kaymi Ross has long been financially independent. But she recently found herself doing something she hadn’t done since her twenties: calling her retired mother to ask for money.
That’s because Ross, a lawyer at the Department of Justice, is one of the more than 800,000 federal employees going without pay as the government shutdown drags on past the one-month mark. On Wednesday, she joined a crowd in the lobby of the Hart Senate Office Building to protest the shutdown, by then in its 33rd day. Occupy Hart, as the protest was called, was co-organized by a coalition of labor unions from across the country, including the National Federation of Federal Employees.
Against the wall of the marble lobby sat several large stacks of Styrofoam plates, on which protestors scribbled their own words of protest. The plates symbolized the “empty coffers” of the impacted federal workers, said Elizabeth Falcon, the Executive Director of DC Jobs with Justice. Pointing out the location, she noted that Senators and their staffers still receive their pay checks during the shutdown, and that bringing the protest there was a way of making it more personal.
After assembling together in the lobby, the protesters remained silent for 33 minutes to mark each day of the shutdown. As they stood, many held up plates with handwritten messages like “Do your job so I can do mine.” Toward the front, they were joined by two Democratic House members, Jamie Raskin of Maryland and Ro Khanna of California.
— Tabitha H. Sanders (@thistabithahope) January 23, 2019
Wandering through the area a few minutes ahead of the 12 p.m. start time, one journalist muttered, “There’s more of us than there are of them.” This was not entirely true—once underway, the protest took up about half of the large lobby. But it fell far short of the stated goal to “fill the entire building with people.” At least a third of attendees appeared to be members of the media covering the event. Overhead, the occasional Hart staffer could be seen peeking over to watch the protesters gathered in their workplace. But most seemed to be going about their business.
In that sense, the protest was a microcosm of the shutdown itself. A mass strike or walk-out by essential federal employees—say, TSA screeners or air-traffic controllers—would probably finally force Senate Republicans to vote to reopen the government, regardless of what Donald Trump thinks. But workers have so far resisted taking that step. And indeed, at Wednesday’s protest, the most common sentiment voiced by furloughed employees was frustration at not getting to do their jobs. “I took an oath. I want to serve,” read one representative sign.
Katie Clair, who works at the Federal Trade Commission, said that she has not even spoken to colleagues about the shutdown or its impact on furloughed employees. “I try not to talk about politics at work,” she said, citing the Hatch Act, which prevents federal workers from linking their work to partisan politics.
But Clair worried that the shutdown would cause disheartened employees to leave government service and dissuade young people from joining in the first place. If career federal workers leave, she said, “we’re going to lose institutional knowledge and history.”