‘This isn't a vacation:' Minnesota's unpaid federal workers want end to shutdown

Federal employees in Minnesota who face a missed paycheck next week as the government shutdown drags on say they are frustrated and anxious about the situation.

Minnesota has about 18,000 federal workers, including Food and Drug Administration officers, Border Patrol agents and prison guards. Some employees are furloughed and must stay away from work. Others, classified as essential employees, are forced to work without pay.

There’s no end in sight to the impasse. President Donald Trump and congressional Democrats remain locked in a dispute over border wall funding. Whenever the shutdown ends, Congress would still have to approve back-pay for employees.

“I want to see them open up the government. Stop using federal employees as a pawn for their inability to get their jobs done,” said Gregg James, national vice president of the American Federation of Government Workers District 8, which includes Minnesota and four other states. “We’ve got serious issues and concerns, but shutting down the government does not help.”

James’ union has sued the Trump administration over the employees required to work without pay.

Employees received their paychecks in late December for the pay period that ended Dec. 22. The next pay period ends Jan. 5, meaning employees would miss their first paycheck next week if the shutdown continues.

Brian Garthwaite, a Food and Drug Administration compliance officer in Minneapolis, has been furloughed since the shutdown began Dec. 22.

“This isn’t a vacation,” Garthwaite said during an interview at his Bloomington home. “This perception that, ‘Oh, it’s just federal workers and we’re saving money,’ – well, people’s mortgages are due, insurance premiums need to be paid, kids need their food.”

It’s the third time this year and the fifth time in his 19-year career that he’s gotten a furlough notice, Garthwaite said.

Not many federal workers in Minnesota have filed for unemployment insurance, state Department of Employment and Economic Development officials said.

Just 288 workers had filed as of Wednesday, a fraction of the 2,500 who had filed by this point during the federal government’s 2013 shutdown, said Shane Delaney, a spokesman for the state employment and economic development agency.

Congress has approved retroactive pay after previous shutdowns, although there is no guarantee this time, James said.

President Trump said Wednesday that the shutdown could go on for a “long time” or could be over quickly. His demands for $5 billion in border wall funding have been met by refusal from Democrats, who have been in the minority in Congress.

The situation changes Thursday, when Democrats take control of the House. Republicans remain in charge of the Senate, and it’s unclear how the impasse will end.