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Furloughed federal workers feel like ‘pawns’ in shutdown fight

The government shutdown that began Friday may have been short-lived, but that doesn’t mean the thousands of federal workers in Arizona who were sent home Monday or made to work without pay feel any less put-upon.

The state’s more than 55,000 federal workers will be back on the job Tuesday, after Congress voted Monday night to extend the budget that had expired Friday, sparking the shutdown. But the latest budget bill was extended for less than three weeks.

That left some worried that they would be right back in the same situation on Feb. 9, the day after the current continuing resolution on the budget is set to expire.

“It’s almost like having an abusive boss, where you don’t know when they’ll drop the hammer on you,” said Ryan Mims, legislative political organizer for the American Federation of Government Employees, District 12, which includes Arizona.

The shutdown began Friday when the Senate could not muster the 60 votes to stop a Democratic filibuster of the budget bill, over demands that it include protections for undocumented immigrants known as Dreamers.

Each side blamed the other for the shutdown while negotiations dragged on through the weekend. It ultimately ended in a deal in which Democrats agreed to let the budget pass and Senate Republican leaders agreed to hold a vote on a bill to protect recipients of Deferred Action of Childhood Arrivals.

The Senate voted 81-18 Monday to approve the budget, followed several hours later by the House’s 266-150 approval.

“The government employees are being used as pawns,” Harley Hembd, AFGE’s Arizona national representative, who blamed both sides in Congress for the shutdown.

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A government shutdown does not mean the loss of all government services. Mail is still delivered because the Postal Service is separately funded, and agencies whose budgets were already approved, like the Veterans Administration hospitals, continue to operate.

In agencies that are affected, workers are divided into essential and non-essential employees. Essential workers – such as border patrol agents and Transportation Security Administration screeners – report to work, even though they are not paid for their time until the government reopens.

Mims says that federal employees already have very stressful jobs, and that the added uncertainty of their futures only makes the job more trying. That is definitely true for border patrol agents, whose normally challenging jobs have the added stress of having to work without various support staff, said Brandon Judd, president of the National Border Patrol Council,

“It made our job a lot more difficult, it made securing the border a lot more difficult,” Judd said. “Morale goes way down during a government shutdown.”

Judd said that workers were left asking themselves: “Did I just work for free?” and “When will I get paid?”

Non-essential workers are sent home without pay, although the White House has agreed to support back pay for those workers once the government is back in business.

Mario Martinez, a Defense Department worker who audits federal contracts, said he was classified as a non-essential government employee and sent home without pay Monday. He said he doesn’t blame both sides, calling the shutdown a “case of failed leadership” that he attributed to President Donald Trump’s refusal to agree to a DACA deal.

Federal employees still worry that the government may shut down again in a matter of days, with Mims saying most workers are “concerned that this (latest budget deal) is just a Band-Aid.” Judd agreed.

“We can be right back in the same situation on Feb. 8,” Judd said.

Martinez said he isn’t sure whether he will be compensated and that at the moment whatever he would have made is lost family income.

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“Unpaid time off means less food on the table,” Martinez said. “We’re doing our best.”

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