WASHINGTON, D.C. — Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), National Park Service, and U.S. Forest Service employees joined other furloughed federal workers at a rally in Washington, D.C. on Thursday where they demanded an end to the partial government shutdown.
Along with causing personal financial problems and emotional distress, federal workers emphasized that the shutdown is harming the environment and the health of the American public.
“It’s hard from a personal financial standpoint. And it’s really hard on the environment,” Terri Dykes, a rally participant and attorney in the EPA Air Enforcement Division’s Office of Civil Enforcement, told ThinkProgress. “It’s more than overflowing garbage cans. As a senior enforcement attorney, I know that excess pollution is occurring right now because we can’t get at our desks.”
Hundreds of federal workers, together with scores of union members from the United Mine Workers and other organized labor groups who joined them in solidarity, gathered outside of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) headquarters office before marching to the White House to denounce the shutdown.
Nearly 800,000 federal workers across the country have been affected by the shutdown, which began December 22 after Congress did not approve funding for President Donald Trump’s proposed wall along the U.S. border with Mexico. Many federal employees have been left without work and pay for 20 days so far.
A National Park Service employee, who asked not to be named, attended the rally out of disgust with the shutdown. She was furloughed on the first day of the shutdown, which landed on a weekend.
“My mortgage is due this week and I don’t know how I am going to pay it because that comes out of this paycheck,” she said. “Personally, professionally, it is absolutely devastating. It’s stressful. We want to work. I want to be at work, not here.”
Because she normally works weekends, the employee lost the Sunday premium pay and holiday pay that she normally receives. The employee, who works in the National Park Service’s education and interpretation division, said she doesn’t expect the premium pay to be reinstated.
Dykes also voiced skepticism, saying she doesn’t think there’s any guarantee that furloughed federal workers will receive back pay when the shutdown ends. “This president has so little regard for the federal employee that I could see him not agreeing to do the back pay,” she warned.
More than 13,000 employees at the EPA are not at work, for instance, with about 750 people deemed essential staff currently undertaking the agency’s duties, but without pay. Data show that the shutdown is preventing EPA employees from receiving $65.8 million in biweekly pay.
A total of $160.4 million in biweekly pay is being withheld from employees of the Department of the Interior, which oversees the National Park Service. At the Department of Agriculture, the U.S. Forest Service’s parent agency, a total of $150.2 million in biweekly pay is being withheld from employees.
An officer with the U.S. Forest Service union — the National Federation of Federal Employees, an affiliate of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers — told ThinkProgress he is working to provide information to furloughed employees, including what they need to apply for unemployment benefits.
U.S. Forest Service employees often work in rural areas where the government agency is one of the few employers. For the employees who still must report to duty, they’re struggling to make it to work each day because they can’t afford to buy the gasoline for their cars without a paycheck, he said.
“We have very passionate employees about the management of the land. This administration has been out to strip a lot of the protection of the land. That already had the employees upset,” the U.S. Forest Service union officer said. “But when they are told they can’t do their jobs, they’re seeing the land sitting there, not being managed, not being protected, it’s really discouraging to them.”
The shutdown has also halted the inspections of chemical factories, power plants, oil refineries, water treatment plants, and thousands of other industrial sites for pollution violations.
Dykes, who has worked as an attorney in the EPA’s enforcement division for the past 17 years, believes corporate polluters are taking advantage of the lack of environmental oversight caused by the shutdown.
“We know that people are getting exposed to illegal pollution and violating companies are getting an illegal competitive advantage right now because I’m not at the table negotiating deals,” Dykes said.
Companies will not install pollution controls, she stressed, until a settlement with the EPA is reached or until a court orders the installation of the technology. “This isn’t hypothetical,” she said. “Harmful pollution is happening because we’re not at our jobs right now.”
At the rally, an employee at a U.S. Department of Agriculture biosecurity laboratory, who declined to be named, told ThinkProgress that experiments at his lab will need to be redone when the shutdown ends because there isn’t enough personnel on hand to complete them.
From a personal standpoint, both he and his wife, who is also a furloughed government employee, currently have no income. The stress associated with the current government shutdown could persuade their two teenage children to avoid a career in government, he added.
In the past, scientists and lawyers joined the federal government, even if they could make more money in the private sector, because they believed in the cause and they trusted their jobs would be secure.
Dykes, though, predicts the current shutdown will cause young attorneys to look elsewhere for jobs that might have better security. “We’ve got young attorneys who we have hired and if they keep getting whipsawed like this, we’re going to lose them,” she said.
Like her fellow federal workers who also attended Thursday’s rally, the National Park Service employee stressed that she strongly believes in the mission of the agency.
“We’re all about protecting our nation’s natural and historical resources,” she said. “Most of us, even though we have advanced degrees, work for real limited pay compared to what we would get in the private sector.”
David Alexander, one of Dykes’ colleagues in the EPA’s air enforcement division, emphasized that the government shutdown is “hurting people.”
“We’re not getting our job done,” he said, “and we’re here to serve the people.”