When Dante Biss-Grayson Halleck, a veteran and federal employee, watched Tuesday night’s address by President Trump and the Democratic response, he said he felt motivated. Motivated to hit the send button on new job applications.
Until recently, life seemed to be going according to plan for the 42-year-old.
After being honorably discharged from the military, he wanted to save lives and support underserved Native Americans. He fulfilled that calling, he said, with a job as a safety officer for a federal hospital that serves tribal nations in New Mexico. He and his wife just welcomed their second child, and he recently got a promotion.
“Hope is not my plan,” Halleck said.
Halleck is his family’s breadwinner. He worries that, like him, other federal employees will begin to look for work in the private sector so they can continue to support their families.
“There are very few people who can live without a paycheck for months,” he said. “If the shutdown lasts and people begin to quit, at-risk patients could suffer the ultimate consequence.”
‘We’re like pawns’
In an address from the Oval Office Tuesday night, Trump appealed to Americans for a wall at the US-Mexico border, saying the country is facing a “humanitarian and security crisis at our southern border.”
Trump has demanded Congress appropriate $5 billion to fund construction of the wall.
In the Democratic response, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer called the wall expensive and ineffective and said Trump is stalling the reopening of the government because of his “obsession” with it.
Although both speeches mentioned the desire to put federal employees back to work, Halleck said he heard only a political standstill.
“There was no solution in there and there was no reason to why these employees are being impacted by the wall,” Halleck said. “We’re like pawns in this whole game.”
Halleck has just started to dip into his emergency funds, which he believes can last his family three months.
He was angry listening to both speeches and called them “a slap in the face to everybody that’s doing a good service for this country.”
“There was no thank you to the federal employees who are going to be living on rice and beans by Friday,” Halleck said, only “underhanded jabs” by the two sides at each other.
‘Who needs to deal with this kind of nonsense?’
Brad Williams, a federal information technology contractor, was more sympathetic to the Democratic response than the President’s speech.
Williams, 46, of Hillsborough, North Carolina, may be in a better position than other workers. His contracting company allows him to convert vacation days to cash, and he has enough accrued to pay him for about two more weeks.
Still, the husband and father of two teenagers already is asking a former colleague about the availability of jobs outside the federal government.
“I’m networking. Because who needs to deal with this kind of nonsense?” Williams said Wednesday.
Williams says he is a political independent who used to be a registered Republican. He said he believes Trump wrongfully conflates a border wall with border security.
“The biggest difference between the two statements was that the response was all about solutions and working in a bipartisan manner to address not just border security, but also the other challenges that the country faces,” Williams said.
Any argument by Trump that he’d want to bring federal employees and contractors back to work would ring hollow, Williams said, “because he could do that right now if he wanted to.”
Another federal contract worker, Lila Johnson, said neither the President’s address nor the shutdown makes sense to her.
The shutdown is keeping the 71-year-old Hagerstown, Maryland, resident from her contract janitorial job with the Department of Agriculture.
She receives a pension from a previous janitor job she retired from. But she says her pension and Social Security alone don’t make ends meet, so she relies on the contract job.
“I think it’s so wrong to put people out of work just for a wall,” she said.
“People cannot afford to pay their bills or put food on the table to feed their family. … The wall is not that important to shut people out of work.”
The shutdown’s consequences
As both parties hold their ground, Americans — whether federal employees or not — are seeing their lives and livelihoods affected.
Meanwhile, ordinary citizens are stepping in to help out where they can.
Restaurants across the country are serving free meals to federal employees who are going unpaid.
But even with the altruism of others, federal employees are still grappling with the loss of their income — and the possibility that it isn’t coming back any time soon.
“I’ve got to hunker down for three months,” Halleck said. “This speech has definitely inspired me to hit the send button on the application.”