Are government workers really affected by government shutdown? originally appeared on Quora, the place to gain and share knowledge, empowering people to learn from others and better understand the world. You can follow Quora on Twitter, Facebook, and Google Plus.
A custodian from NASA contacted my offices looking for help finding part-time work. After two decades on the job, he’s found himself furloughed as part of the longest shutdown in U.S. history. He needs help. There are about 800,000 federal workers like him. They’re receiving no paychecks, even though more than half have to keep working anyway.
Thousands are applying for state unemployment benefits, which may provide partial pay for a limited time. They’ll then have to go through the bureaucratic hassle of paying back those benefits if they get back pay when the government resumes. But the big picture is this: Government workers have had the rug pulled out from under them.
It’s the latest sign that workers in today’s economy are without stability. Even as disruption has led to all kinds of changes in traditional businesses in recent years, federal government work has maintained a reputation of being relatively stable. Workers have turned down higher paying jobs in the private sector in hopes of finding job security in the public sector. Now, many of these workers across the country are “having second thoughts” - and discovering it’s not so stable after all.
As all these workers find themselves suddenly looking for sources of income, they’re facing the difficult realities of the modern economy - a reality that differs greatly from the rosy pictures often provided by news reports and so-called “jobs” numbers.
We’re in the gig economy, and businesses of all kinds have become increasingly reliant on hiring contractors and part-time workers. They’re counted as “employed” in official government numbers, even if they’re not making enough money to pay their bills. In fact, 78% of U.S. workers live paycheck-to-paycheck.
Nearly all the “jobs” created between 2005 and 2015 were made up of temporary work, a study by Harvard and Princeton professors. An estimated “94 percent of the net employment growth in the U.S. economy” during that period “occurred in alternative work arrangements,” which include “temporary help agency workers, on-call workers, contract workers, and independent contractors or freelancers,” the study said.
Millions of Americans are working part-time because they can't get full-time work. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that nearly 5 million people were working part-time in December for “economic reasons,” which include “slack work or unfavorable business conditions, inability to find full-time work, or seasonal declines in demand.”
Now, furloughed government workers are entering the fray as well, looking for “side hustles,” from bartending to Uber driving. One veteran diplomat described in the Washington Post is doing her day job of analyzing a nation in economic upheaval for the State Department, unpaid, while also pet sitting and doing product reviews so she can make some money.
As these federal employees enter the pool of gig workers in larger numbers, they’re creating a larger available workforce for companies that want cheap temporary labor. It’s another stage in what we’ve seen all too much of for years now: economic changes that empower corporations and disempower individuals.
Some of these federal employees, like the NASA janitor, began their government jobs decades ago, when things were different. For them, suddenly facing this new economy can come as a shock, whether they’re looking for gig work during the shutdown or seeking a job in the private sector. The longer a shutdown continues, the more likely people are to look for new jobs - particularly since President Trump said he’s “prepared” to to keep the government closed for months or even years.
These are steep challenges facing federal workers as they try to keep themselves and their families fed and housed, both now and in the future. It’s why a White House economic adviser was wrong when he said some workers were “better off” in some sense as a result of the shutdown. His argument was that they’d get the holidays off, and then eventually get back pay. But the threats to their livelihoods mean workers told to stay home, and those forced to keep working without pay, are very simply not better off. No one should suggest otherwise.
A government office recently faced criticism after suggesting furloughed workers seeking legal advice “consult your personal attorney,” as though they have the money to hire one. The same office also expressed regret after tweeting a letter from several years ago suggesting furloughed workers offer to do manual labor for their landlords.
While this advice may have been well intended, this isn’t what workers need from their employers. It’s time for the government, and all employers, to empower workers with the security, stability, dignity, and respect they deserve. After all, NASA custodians helped put a man on the moon.
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