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January 9, 2019

The Shutdown’s Essential Personnel Remain on the Job

Let’s not forget the essential government employees who are not on paid vacation.

Government shutdowns are a paradox. Conservatives have a valid point when they say the federal government is too bloated and that billions of tax dollars are being doled out to provide completely unnecessary jobs. However, just because the sailing appears to be smooth nearly three weeks into the current partial shutdown does not mean the situation is sustainable or that shutdowns are good.

As National Review’s Jim Geraghty reminds us, there are thousands upon thousands of important federal employees who are still putting in hours despite being furloughed. It’s they who are keeping broad disruption at bay. But that task becomes harder the longer the shutdown continues.

Says Geraghty: “You’re seeing some conservatives argue that the American government is functioning fine during the shutdown, demonstrating that the ‘nonessential’ workers are genuinely unneeded and that this proves that there’s no real need to bring the shutdown to an end. This is a pretty poorly informed reaction. Some of the most important duties of the federal government are continuing to function because hundreds of thousands of federal employees are working without pay and hoping that they get paid for their labor once the shutdown ends.”

Consider the number of furloughed or soon-to-be-furloughed workers from these various departments:

  • U.S. Customs and Border Protection: 55,000

  • U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement: 16,000

  • Citizenship and Immigration Services: 17,000

  • Federal Emergency Management Agency: 15,000

  • U.S. Coast Guard: 42,000

  • Transportation and Security Administration: 55,000

  • Department of Justice: 36,000

  • Federal Bureau of Prisons: 35,000

  • Drug Enforcement Agency: 7,600

  • U.S. Marshals Service: 4,600

  • Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives: 4,200

There are other considerations as well. As Geraghty goes on to note, “Zookeepers are still taking care of the animals … without pay. About 95 percent of NASA’s employees aren’t going to work — just the folks who have to show up and keep NASA people and property safe. … Whether or not you like the Department of Housing and Urban Development, if we’re going to have public housing, we probably should have safety inspections. Those are suspended until further notice. Some contract workers in federal buildings such as custodians and security officers are effectively laid off until the government reopens.”

“Just about any institution can temporarily get by with the minimal staff,” Geraghty adds, “but after a while the duties pile up and become unmanageable — whether it’s a waitress trying to serve too many tables, supermarkets with one cash register open, or public bathrooms with only one stall working.” In other words, shutdowns — and workers — are subjected to a compound effect.

None of this should be confused with why we have a government shutdown, which is a completely separate issue. But we can both criticize Big Government while at the same time sympathize with diligent workers who are affected. Some lawmakers have suggested furloughing their own salaries during government shutdowns. That’s not a bad idea — they surely deserve the money less than these thousands of workers who make our way of living safe and secure.

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