Foreign Service workers and civilian employees at the State Department organized a rally Friday to keep government open, pleading with Congress not to “shut down diplomacy.”
Members of the American Foreign Service Association and the American Federation of Government Employees held up signs with slogans such as “Diplomacy Matters” and “Let us do our jobs!” outside State’s headquarters in Washington. Organizers called on Congress to act swiftly to protect employees’ paychecks as well as the nation’s security.
“We know that in order to be leaders overseas, we need to be leaders here at home,” said Robert Silverman, president of AFSA. “So we ask Congress to show that leadership today.”
Sharon Wayne, AFSA’s vice president for the U.S. Agency for International Development, said the federal workforce should not be used to score political points. “The threat of shutting down the government and giving the perception of faithful federal employees being used as pawns in a political showdown should not be an option,” Wayne told the crowd.
Anthony Bishop, head of AFGE’s local at State, said furloughing some employees during a shutdown, while exempting others who are identified as “essential” to government operations, sends a terrible message to the workforce.
“You’re telling someone we need you, telling someone else we don’t need you, and they’re sitting side by side in the office,” Bishop said. “That ruins morale.”
Silverman agreed, saying that message will be sent even if Congress is able to pass a spending bill by Monday’s deadline. “The damage is already done,” he said after the rally. “The contingency plan has to be in place for Tuesday. You’re already told your nonessential; what does that tell you about what your mission is?”
Employees took time out of their lunch break on Friday afternoon to attend the protest. Michael Thomas, director of State’s Special Issuance Agency and a member of AFSA’s board of governors, said he sandwiched his stop at the rally between two meetings. According to Thomas, State employees generally work 10 to 12 hours a day and many come in to work on Saturday.
“The indignity of being told on top of all this uncompensated overtime, which we are happy to do, we’re either going to lay you off or expect you to keep working for free, is really unconscionable,” he said.
Federal employees who are deemed essential and work during a shutdown are guaranteed pay for that time, but they would not receive a paycheck until after the government reopens. Congress can decide to grant retroactive pay to furloughed workers, and have in the past, though there is no requirement to do so.