“Dear President Trump and members of Congress”

Tuesday, January 22, 2019 - 10:45
  • Rashe Ophus Johnson and her family. (Photo courtesy of Rashae Ophus Johnson)

Dear President Trump and members of Congress,

Day 31: Even as you withhold our pay, we continue working hard operating, maintaining and protecting our beloved nation. This is convenient for those of you in power, but it’s demoralizing for us, the workers. It’s like a communist microeconomy. You failed to do your job, yet you still are collecting pay from the fruits of our work.

On either side of “the wall,” you regard the government shutdown as collateral damage of a critical battle, fighting for a noble cause. But what about us? Are you indifferent to the security and suffering of the 800,000 working class American families who are caught in the middle?

We are not collateral damage. We are not pawns. We should not be casualties of your fight. Gambling with the livelihoods of federal employees demonstrates how little you value us — as constituents, as public servants, as Americans.

What we are experiencing right now exceeds uncertainty and anxiety about how we will continue to make our mortgage payments, feed our families and pay our bills. We feel angry. We feel used. We feel betrayed.

How can you, elected by us and paid by our tax dollars to represent our best interests, take a leisurely weekend knowing we are spending our weekend negotiating with creditors, selling possessions and returning Christmas gifts? We took these federal jobs to better our lives and provide for our families, and we count on you to ensure fair and timely compensation. You have betrayed us all.

Our family barely scraped by through the early years of a federal career, prioritizing bills by which was closest to being shut off or turned into collections. The federally employed families who fall among the working poor don’t have savings or credit, and may not have belongings they can sell to support their families through this furlough. Roughly 420,000 “essential” employees who still are working their regular federal jobs are ineligible for unemployment income because they are working, albeit without income. You are jeopardizing seniors on fixed incomes, Coast Guard retirees dependent on their pension. Applications for unemployment and food stamps are stalled in federal gridlock. We feel despair.

Securely in the middle of the middle class, I don’t take for granted that we can make the mortgage payment on time and usually pay our monthly credit card balance — without floating a check or fearing an overdraft fee. This month, though, we can’t pay our credit card balance. I felt nauseated making our mortgage payment, seeing our checking account balance plunge. With total uncertainty as to how long my husband will have to work without pay, we can’t even guess how long our limited funds must last.

Half of American families have little to no emergency savings, and precious few working class families have enough saved to fund the “months or even years” you are willing to let us struggle. With no end in sight, it’s painful to consider which necessities to ration, which services to cancel, which possessions to sell. We feel angry that we are making the sacrifices while you play political chicken.

Your timing couldn’t be worse. This furlough struck within 10 days of our son’s birthday, my husband’s birthday, Christmas, and my birthday, during a frigid cold streak with temperatures perpetually below zero. Our heat bills are pushing $500 with the thermostat set at a chilly 60 degrees — 58 overnight. We generally cover these seasonal expenses with our federal tax refund, which is now inaccessible. Worse off than us are families in Florida and the Southeast, California and Alaska who recently depleted their savings and/or took on major debt recovering from hurricanes, wildfires and a 7.0 earthquake. Natural disaster compounded by your budgeting disaster is catastrophic.

A memo from headquarters to department employees advised us to ask our creditors and service providers for a break. I had to request deferred payment to our dentist for an urgent procedure, since we don’t have dental coverage. Given your wanton disregard for how federal employees will survive without income, it figures that you also expect our medical and child care providers and utility companies to also provide services without pay.

Your failure to lead impacts thousands more of the working class who are not federal employees. Our friend owns a small private practice providing therapy to children on evenings and weekends, in addition to a full-time day job. The majority of her clients are federal families or military families. The federal families have requested extended due dates or installment plans on their portion. Military families (except for the undervalued Coast Guard) are still receiving their income, but since their insurance is federally administered, claims are “pending” in limbo while the provider is not reimbursed. You are depriving this highly educated single mom, working two jobs including running her own business, of the supplemental income she depends on to make ends meet.

The “essential” federal employees are now essentially indentured servants. My husband, like some 420,000 essential furloughed employees, is required to work without pay indefinitely, leaving not enough hours in a day to take on a second full-time job and still get in some sleep. (Federal employees in his position are prohibited from working a secondary job anyway, furlough or no.) Being at the office all day also means he can’t stay home with our children while I work — assuming I could find an adequate job on short notice after a 12-year hiatus raising kids. He feels powerless as the primary breadwinner left with no means to provide for seven dependents. If this drags on too long, the alternative for essential employees would be to switch careers, start at the bottom again and sacrifice their federal benefits and retirement in order to provide for their families today.

This is grossly unethical, if not illegal. Kudos to the air traffic controllers who are fighting this injustice in court. No other employer could get away with not paying its employees or withholding their pay indefinitely, thanks to federal fair labor laws. Why would you be exempt from the laws that you govern? You are exploiting us.

On that note, while you hopefully are rectifying whatever loophole allows you to do this, you should be aware of the federal law that prohibits a deputy U.S. marshal from earning more than a junior congressman. Seriously. Their overtime hours become mandatory unpaid overtime as soon as their total for the pay period reaches that of a junior congressman. Deputy marshals risk their lives every day taking the worst fugitives off our streets, perpetually on call and prepared to take a bullet to protect the judges and prosecutors who put away these criminals. Yet you forbid their paychecks to rival yours, and withhold their pay altogether as you see fit for political leverage.

So, as the family of an essential yet unvalued public servant, powerless to resolve the budget impasse ourselves, here’s how we are withstanding your government shutdown. I returned birthday and Christmas presents and discretionary purchases, and I’m selling household items we would normally donate. (Anyone need basketball shoes or a winter coat?) I canceled plans to fly home for my dad’s 80th birthday party. We negotiated deferred payments and interest waivers with our creditors and providers. Jobs in my field aren’t a realistic option as they rarely pay enough to cover child care after taxes and commuting expenses, but I’m looking. (At least we could count on any other employer to issue paychecks as contractually obligated.) Meanwhile I’m taking extra assignments and devoting my evenings and weekends to contracted work.

Mr. President, senators and representatives, thank you for agreeing to pay us back — eventually. But someday isn’t soon enough and too late for many. Please recognize the security and livelihoods of 800,000 federal employees as a noble cause worth defending. Quit exploiting public servants and using the suffering of our families for political leverage. We have devoted 15 years of our life to my husband’s career serving and protecting our country. He’s done his job well and faithfully. Please do yours and stop this injustice once and for all.

Rashae Ophus Johnson lives in Chugiak with her husband and their six children. She is a former newspaper reporter and currenlty a freelance writer who has contributed to the Star. She also serves as a member of the Chugiak Community Council.

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