After a month of shutdown, US federal workers turn to food banks

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R_KY is trailed by reporters after speaking on the floor of the U.S. Senate on January 22, 2019 in Washington, DC. AFP PHOTO

Most never needed help from a food pantry. But a month since the US government shutdown began, dozens of federal employees have been lining up in Brooklyn for basics.

US Senate leaders have agreed to vote Thursday on competing proposals to end a government shutdown now in its second month, but the chances are slim that either will reopen federal agencies.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and top Democrat Chuck Schumer announced an agreement on the Senate floor Tuesday for a pair of test votes.

The first would be a procedural step on a measure that funds all shuttered branches of government through September, and includes President Donald Trump’s demand for border wall funding and his proposal on immigration policy.

A second vote would be on a stop-gap measure that funds government until February 8, to allow for debate over border security and immigration, while also letting Trump’s upcoming State of the Union address before Congress proceed.

It also would include disaster relief money already passed in the House.

Each proposal would require 60 votes to advance in the 100-member body, a high threshold, given the current level of partisan rancor over who is to blame for the shutdown.

A senior Republican Senate aide told AFP it was unlikely Republicans would sign on to the short-term funding bill, and that even if they did, the president would not sign it.

But the Democratic leader took to the floor to say the votes “could break us out of the morass we are in,” and he specifically encouraged Republicans to sign on to the stop-gap bill to briefly open government.

“It will allow us to then debate, without hostage-taking, without temper tantrum… how we can best do border security,” he said.

After a month of shutdown, US federal workers turn to food banks.

Most never needed help from a food pantry. But a month since the US government shutdown began, dozens of federal employees have been lining up in Brooklyn for basics.

Customs, tax and emergency management officials are all among the crowd, having gone unemployed since December 22.

Transportation Security Administration (TSA) employees leave the Barclays Center with bags of food as the Food Bank For NYC holds food distribution for federal workers impacted by the government shutdown in Brooklyn, New York January 22, 2019. AFP PHOTO

Others deemed “essential” like transportation workers or prison guards are forced to continue working without pay, taking advantage of their lunch breaks to stock up.

Volunteers are manning distribution tables in the lobby of the New York borough’s Barclays Center, which usually hosts concerts or sporting events rather than charity drives.

Those in need first register and then fill plastic bags with canned goods, potatoes, chicken, grapes and basic toiletries.

“I came here to grab some goods, to be honest,” said Antoinette Peek-Williams, an employee of the Homeland Security Department, who came an hour by subway from Harlem.

“Any way I can save money and put towards something else — that’s what I am trying to do.”
Since the budget impasse began, the 62-year-old lives “day to day — watching what I eat, watching what I spend, not spending.”

“Praying that they make a decision sooner than later.”
She hopes to return to work on February 1 — an optimism of which she’s no longer so certain.

“I am a person where the glass is always half-full,” said the mother of a college student.

“I have to stay hopeful,” she said. “If you don’t have hope, you don’t have anything.”

It’s a sentiment echoed by Chante Johnson, a tax administrator.

But “it’s getting rough,” the 48-year-old said. “It’s coming, like, to the end of everything.”


She provides for a daughter along with her mother, and says she hasn’t been able to sleep or eat healthy since being out of work.

“I just want them to open it up,” she said. “Start talking and open up the government.”

For those federal workers forced to work without pay, the situation is even more tense.

They can only testify anonymously, sworn to confidentiality.

“It is very stressful,” said one 39-year-old single mother, who works as a prison guard at Brooklyn’s federal detention facility.

FBI Agents Association member Thomas O’Connor holds up an FBI report “Voices From the Field” giving examples of how the government shutdown is undermining their work on drug and gang enforcement, security, and counter-terrorism, as he speaks during a press conference in Washington, DC, on January 22, 2019. AFP PHOTO

She came to the food pantry on her lunch break seeking enough to prepare a few meals.

Her daughter is nearing the end of high school, and as students apply for universities, she laments being unable to pay her child’s application fees.

She managed to postpone the monthly bill for her cell phone — which she needs for work — albeit with a late penalty.

But she won’t be able to make it after mid-February.
“After that I won’t be able to go to work,” she said, saying she won’t have money to fill her car’s gas tank.

The shutdown has exacerbated an already precarious situation in a city where soaring rents are pushing more and more families into poverty, said Francisco Tezen, head of development at the Food Bank for New York City.

The non-profit, the city’s largest food assistance organization, hosted the distribution along with corporate sponsors.

“Something like this is unprecedented, it’s almost equivalent to times when we have had to activate response and services in response to a disaster,” said Tezen.

“Just the length of period of time, and the volatility and the unknowns.”

Organizations like his “can be of assistance and help,” he said — “but we are not an antidote to gridlock or just bad policy.”

He refrained from pointing specific blame for the political stalemate, but many in New York, a Democratic stronghold, pin culpability on Donald Trump.

In Johnson’s view, the border situation is not dire enough to require the $5.7 billion the president has demanded to build a wall.

“What happened? Did a Mexican beat him up as a little boy so he is so gung-ho on this wall?” she asked. “Talk about it and get us back to work.

“Get us back the work that we love doing.”

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