Nathan Wiser, who monitors water quality for the Environmental Protection Agency in Denver, has been unable to go to work for 20 days due to the partial government shutdown. So on Thursday afternoon, he joined roughly 150 other federal workers in a rally outside of the U.S. Custom House in Denver.
Their message to the government: “Do your job so that we can do ours.”
Organized by the American Federation of Government Employees, the rally was part of a nationwide protest over the shutdown, which entered its 20th day Thursday. The shutdown impacts or could impact some 800,000 federal workers, including 53,200 in Colorado.
“I’m here because I am a furloughed federal employee,” Wiser said. “I am not being paid. I am being shut out of the office. I am not allowed to go to work.” Wiser said his frustration with the shutdown is twofold: one, he said his work is important for public safety, and two, on a more personal level, he hates burning through his savings.
“My mortgage company still has to be paid. My auto loans still have to be paid. My family still needs food. My kids are in school.”
Wiser regulates injection wells, which store wastewater and chemicals from mines and oil wells deep underground. When an injection well has a problem and shuts down, the EPA must approve the well before operations can resume. But if EPA inspectors aren’t working, “They [the oil and gas industry] are then faced with the choice of illegally operating the well, which is not a good thing to do, or not being able to use it. I also need to make sure that the way they have fixed it is protective of drinking water resources. My job is to protect aquifers,” Wiser explained.
Friday will be the first federal payday since the start of the shutdown, and unless Congress and the president can reach an agreement to reopen the government before then, many federal employees will not receive a check.
The shutdown, which has left an estimated 40 percent of federal employees furloughed, will be the longest in U.S. history if it continues past Friday. Colorado is especially affected by the halt of government activity: according to The New York Times, 16,000 Coloradans work in federal agencies affected by the shutdown.
The shutdown is the result of Congress and President Trump’s failure to agree on the appropriations bill for the 2019 fiscal year, largely due to President Trump’s demand for a $5.7 billion budget to build a U.S.-Mexico border wall.
Colorado elected officials weighed in on Thursday. Rep. Diana DeGette, a Democrat, announced she will not accept a paycheck as long as federal employees are going without pay. Republican Sen. Cory Gardner broke from his party and said he would vote on bills to end the shutdown.
Workers at the rally told reporters they were not speaking on behalf of their federal agencies, but rather as private citizens.
Rally attendee Chris Stillman, a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom who took a job with the Transportation Security Agency after he got out of the military in 2006, said he remains invested in his job, despite the shutdown. “I am not going anywhere, unless it is actually a desperate move. I don’t want a federal career to be a bad choice. I don’t want protecting America to be a bad career decision.”
Rhonda Horn, who works as a grant specialist in multifamily housing for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, explained that she is the only source of income in her household. She has calculated that she can pay her rent through the end of February, but fears that the end of the shutdown is not coming anytime soon. “I don’t understand the importance of what is going on. It doesn’t relate to shutting down the government. That’s the part that’s scary: it doesn’t seem like there’s a willingness on the president’s part to move forward and get us back to work, and just have that be a conversation that continues, but with everyone working.”
Britta Copt, who is president of AFGE Local 3607 and an employee of the EPA, said of the cause of the shutdown, “This is a battle over something that doesn’t have anything to do with federal employees, and we’re being held hostage and being used as pawns, and it’s awful,” she said. “I hope that everyone will come to their senses and allow us to go back to work and let us do the work we need to do for the American people. The people that I work with are here to serve the public and to serve American citizens, and that’s what they want to do.”
Wiser explained his ultimate frustration with the shutdown: “We are caught in the middle … We are at the whim of what’s going on in Washington politically, over a wall.”
— Lars Gesing contributed to this report.