Shutdown aftershock: who's hit the hardest?

The Rev. Michael Livingston |

The government is open after 16 days of democracy on the run. Analysts and economists are already at work calculating the cost and damage done to our economy. People of faith need to remember that cost begins with the workers who didn't receive paychecks for that two-week period and won't receive checks for at least another two weeks.

These are good people who don't have a comfortable margin of error in the calculations that define their day-to-day existence. Without regular income the rent can't be paid and it becomes harder and harder to keep the refrigerator filled with food. For these workers, a missed paycheck could mean no gas in the car, if there is a car. 

Hardest hit in Washington, D.C. are the workers in federal buildings who are employed by government-contracted corporations and concessionaires. Unlike direct employees of the federal government, these workers won't receive back pay for days lost during the shutdown. As one worker put it, "I've gone from low-wage to no wage." 

Members of Congress get paid lucrative salaries, corporate executives with government contracts get hefty bonuses, and what do the workers get? Worry. Anxiety. Despair.  Where is the justice in that?  "What gain have the workers from their toil?"

On the day before Congress finally passed legislation that put the government back to work, I walked the halls of the offices of members of the House of Representatives with 70 other religious leaders and at least a dozen of the workers most affected by the shutdown. We sang hymns and talked with House staffers who were both surprised to see us and just a little bit uncomfortable with our presence. We told them to tell their bosses to open the government now and the workers described in detail the hardships they were experiencing. We prayed for courage on the part of the moderates in the Republican Party who have not stood up to the small, loud, clique of members who have held the government captive to their irrational demands and will go down in history as having caused the unnecessary suffering of hundreds of thousands of people for no good reason at all. May their names never be forgotten.

While we may celebrate this moment when our democracy has exhaled, we must remain sober at the real prospect that this sad drama will be repeated in a few short months beyond the short shelf life of the legislation just passed.  So we prayed then and we pray now for the workers whose lives are not insignificant factors in toxic political battles, they are rather, children of God, brothers and sisters in our national community. Their well-being is God's desire. Our solidarity with them is the test of our faithfulness to the highest values of our various religious traditions and to the principles of our founding as a nation.

Click here to support government-contracted workers beyond the shutdown.