Some workers still unpaid after shutdown, dread what’s next
By MICHELLE R. SMITH
Thursday, February 7
Nearly two weeks after the end of the longest government shutdown in U.S history, many federal workers still have not received their back pay or have only gotten a fraction of what they are owed as government agencies struggle with payroll glitches and other delays.
And even as they scramble to catch up on unpaid bills and to repay unemployment benefits, the prospect of another shutdown looms next week.
“President Trump stood in the Rose Garden at the end of the shutdown and said, ‘We will make sure that you guys are paid immediately.’ … And here it is, it’s almost two weeks later,” said Michael Walter, who works for the U.S. Department of Agriculture food safety inspection service in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, and only got his paycheck Wednesday. He said two co-workers told him they still had received nothing.
The government has been short on details about how many people are still waiting to be paid.
Bradley Bishop, a spokesman for the Office of Management and Budget, said the Trump administration had taken “unprecedented steps to ensure federal employees impacted by the shutdown received back pay within a week.”
“Much opposite of ‘slow and chaotic,’ an overwhelming majority of employees received their pay by Jan. 31,” he said, though he didn’t respond to questions about how many people still hadn’t been paid.
The USDA said in a statement that pay was its top priority, but also did not respond to questions about how many workers were still awaiting paychecks. Asked to confirm that some people hadn’t been paid, USDA spokeswoman Amanda Heitkamp replied, “I’m not sure.”
Donna Zelina’s husband works for the Bureau of Indian Affairs in South Dakota. He has received only a portion of his back pay, and does not expect to be fully paid until Feb. 12. The couple had to drain their savings shortly before the shutdown when both his parents died, leaving them in a precarious financial position.
Zelina said she called her creditors, but they wouldn’t work with her. Her husband’s car loan went into forbearance, causing them to rack up fees.
“I don’t think people really understand what people do in government and just assume that everybody … makes millions of dollars,” she said.
A spokesman for the Department of Interior, which handles payroll for more than five dozen government offices, did not answer when asked how many workers were due back pay, but said a “small group of employees” had not received anything. Spokesman Russell Newell said others received “interim payments of back pay” that would be made up in the next pay period.
The Census Bureau acknowledged Wednesday that about 850 employees nationwide have yet to receive back pay or have only gotten a fraction of what they’re owed. A spokesman said they expected most of those workers to be paid by Friday.
Other affected agencies include the Federal Aviation Administration, where two unions representing FAA workers said their members had not yet received all of their back pay.
Doug Church of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association said members who worked during the shutdown had not gotten overtime, which he said was a violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act. They also had not received the extra pay they were due for working nights and holidays, he said.
David Verardo, a union local president, said he was still owed $2,000 and estimated that the 1,000 workers his union represents at the National Science Foundation in Alexandria, Virginia, are each due between $1,200 and $3,000 for the two pay periods they missed.
“It’s good that we got back pay at all, but it seems to have been clumsily done. When people ask questions, the answer they get is, ‘We’re doing the best we can,’” said Verardo of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 3403.
Making matters even more confusing, he said payments for things like supplemental health plans and court-ordered alimony and child support were not withheld from paychecks. He said workers were told to pay them on their own, but many didn’t know how to do that and were concerned about possible legal implications.
In addition to the pay delays, workers are struggling with issues like navigating the bureaucracy of paying back unemployment benefits and the looming question of whether there would be another shutdown after Feb. 15.
Trish Binkley, a tax examiner at the Internal Revenue Service in Kansas City, Missouri, is setting aside money, including her tax refund and an emergency loan she got from her credit union, in case of another shutdown.
She received two unemployment checks of $288 each during the shutdown before getting a letter informing her she was ineligible for the benefits — even though she had been told she qualified. Binkley has paid the money back, but worries about another shutdown.
She and others have grown increasingly frustrated at seeing social media posts that downplayed the impact of the shutdown.
“This was not a vacation. Vacations are supposed to be fun and relaxing. You have money to go do fun things or whatever. This was one of the most stressful periods of my life,” Binkley said.
The shutdown motivated Cheryl Inzunza Blum to re-evaluate her career as a government contract lawyer representing immigrants in federal court in Tucson, Arizona. She has not been paid since before the shutdown began.
Blum realized she must diversify her solo law practice and plans to do more personal injury work. For the long term, she is making a bigger change. She enrolled in an online course in international relations at Harvard Extension School to educate herself on what drives migration, and hopes to work on solutions to the issues surrounding immigration.
“I did it because I don’t want to go through this again,” she said. “I want to carve out another career, I really do.”
Among the groups hardest hit by the shutdown are contract workers who were kept home and who are not entitled to back pay.
The shutdown affected some 2,000 people with disabilities who got their government contract jobs with help from the nonprofit SourceAmerica, according to John Kelly, its vice president of government affairs and public policy.
Nearly 60 percent still had not been called back to their jobs as of Wednesday.
It’s been a difficult time for those workers, who often have a hard time finding a job in the first place, Kelly said. Their jobs include custodial and mailroom work at agencies like NASA, the Coast Guard and the Department of the Interior, he said.
The shutdown has also damaged some workers’ credit scores.
Pearl Fraley, of Greenville, North Carolina, who works for the food safety inspection service, had to work unpaid through the shutdown and used credit cards to get by. Fraley asked her landlord to waive the late fees on her rent, but has not heard back. She said her car’s heater broke during the shutdown, and she hasn’t had the money to get it fixed.
She’s dreading another possible shutdown.
“I don’t know if we can do this a second time,” she said.
Associated Press writer Juliet Linderman in Washington contributed to this report.
ICE detainees on hunger strike are being force-fed, just like Guantánamo detainees before them
February 7, 2019
Author: A. Naomi Paik, Assistant Professor of Asian American Studies, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Disclosure statement: A. Naomi Paik does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, is force-feeding nine detainees who are on a hunger strike at a detention center in El Paso, Texas.
The protesters are mostly from India and are being held in ICE custody while their asylum or immigration cases are processed. Since the beginning of the year, they have been protesting their detainment and mistreatment by guards who they allege have threatened them with deportation and withheld information about their cases, according to the detainees’ lawyers.
In mid-January, a federal court ordered ICE to force-feed the strikers. An ICE official stated: “For their health and safety, ICE closely monitors the food and water intake of those detainees identified as being on a hunger strike.” ICE policy states that the agency authorizes “involuntary medical treatment” if a detainee’s health is threatened by hunger striking.
Force-feeding involves tying a detainee to a bed, inserting a feeding tube down the nose and esophagus and pumping liquid nutrition into the stomach. ICE detainees have reported rectal bleeding and vomiting as a consequence of being force-fed.
As I write in my book “Rightlessness” and research published elsewhere, this is not the first time U.S. government agencies have force-fed people in its custody.
Since 2005, the U.S. military has force-fed detainees at the Guantánamo Bay naval base whenever they would go on a hunger strike to protest their indefinite detention.
Force-feeding at Guantánamo
The U.S. military has indefinitely detained individuals at Guantánamo who it alleges are enemy combatants in the “war on terror” since 2002.
Hunger strikes have plagued Guantánamo since it opened in 2002. In one of the largest hunger strikes to occur in a U.S. detention facility, about 500 detainees stopped eating under the slogan “starvation until death” in late June 2005.
They began this strike to protest the conditions of their confinement, including alleged beatings, abuse of their religious freedom by mishandling the Koran and indefinite detention without trial.
Nutritional shakes, a tube for feeding through the nose, and lubricants, including a jar of olive oil, are displayed as force feeding is explained during a tour of the detainee hospital at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, Cuba. AP Photo/Charles Dharapak
In response, military doctors authorized “involuntary intravenous hydration and/or enteral tube feeding” – in other words, IV treatment and force-feeding.
Prisoners found ways to get around the feedings, like making themselves vomit or siphoning out their stomachs by sucking on the external end of the feeding tube.
The strike overwhelmed camp commanders. In December 2005, they called in help from the Federal Bureau of Prisons, which had previously authorized force-feeding. The consultants observed as strikers were force-fed twice a day and recommended using the emergency restraint chair, a “padded cell on wheels.”
That requires strapping detainees down onto the chair, making it easier for guards to insert and remove a feeding tube. Detainees referred to it as the “execution chair.” This had the desired effect on the prisoners: Only a handful continued the hunger strike and it was over by February 2006. The camp ordered 20 more chairs.
A painful process
In 2013, a widespread hunger strike again swept through Guantánamo – 106 of 166 prisoners participated. Forty-one detainees met the requirements for being force-fed: skipping nine consecutive meals or their BMI dropping below 85 percent of their intake weight.
One participant, Samir Naji al Hasan Moqbel, a Yemini citizen detained for 11 years, told The New York Times, “I had never experienced such pain” as from the feedings.
Detainees who participated in the numerous strikes over the years have consistently described the force-feeding process, including having teams of five guards who hold down the prisoner, as torture. Some reported being overfed to the point where they vomited up what was forced down their throats.
“I will not eat until they restore my dignity,” Moqbel said. He said he hoped “that because of the pain we are suffering the eyes of the world will once again look to Guantanamo before it is too late.”
Guantánamo hunger strikers filed lawsuits against the U.S. government for force-feeding prisoners and using the restraint chair.
Several judges ruled that force-feedings are legal. In one case, a judge wrote that it did not constitute a violation of the Eighth Amendment against cruel and unusual punishment. Rather, she wrote that administrators “are acting out of a need to preserve the life of the Petitioners rather than letting them die.”
This contradicts what many experts the medical and human rights professionals have said about force-feeding.
The World Medical Association, an international medical ethics organization, asserted that force-feeding is “unjustifiable.” Organizations ranging from the ACLU to Human Rights Watch condemn the practice as “inherently cruel, inhuman, and degrading.”
Another federal judge in a 2009 followed a Supreme Court ruling deciding that courts have no jurisdiction over Guantánamo – a camp physically located in Cuba but governed by the United States.
Similarly, federal courts have limited power to intervene on behalf of the ICE detainees because immigrant detention is not considered punishment and thus not protected by due process rights. In Wong Wing v. United States(1896), the Supreme Court ruled that “the Constitution does not apply to the conditions of immigrant detention.”
While the courts can authorize interventions requested by the government such as force-feeding, immigrant detainees have limited power to appeal to courts about the conditions of their detention.
As with the Guantánamo detainees, migrants are risking starvation, but not because they want to die. As Amrit Singh, the uncle of two men being force-fed, stated, “They want to know why they are still in the jail and want to get their rights and wake up the government immigration system.” Hunger striking offers one of few ways they can protest their prolonged confinement in pursuit of this goal.
Don’t Expect Rulers of Nuclear-Armed Nations to Accept Nuclear Disarmament―Unless They’re Pushed to Do So
By Lawrence Wittner
At the beginning of February 2019, the two leading nuclear powers took an official step toward resumption of the nuclear arms race. On February 1, the U.S. government, charging Russian violations of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, announced that it would pull out of the agreement and develop new intermediate-range missiles banned by it. The following day, Russian President Vladimir Putin suspended his government’s observance of the treaty, claiming that this was done as a “symmetrical” response to the U.S. action and that Russia would develop nuclear weapons outlawed by the agreement.
In this fashion, the 1987 Soviet-American INF Treaty―which had eliminated thousands of destabilizing nuclear weapons, set the course for future nuclear disarmament agreements between the two nuclear superpowers, and paved the way for an end to the Cold War―was formally dispensed with.
Actually, the scrapping of the treaty should not have come as a surprise. After all, the rulers of nations, especially “the great powers,” are rarely interested in limiting their access to powerful weapons of war, including nuclear weapons. Indeed, they usually favor weapons buildups by their own nation and, thus, end up in immensely dangerous and expensive arms races with other nations.
Donald Trump exemplifies this embrace of nuclear weapons. During his presidential campaign, he made the bizarre claim that the 7,000-weapon U.S. nuclear arsenal “doesn’t work,” and promised to restore it to its full glory. Shortly after his election, Trump tweeted: “The United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability.” The following day, with his customary insouciance, he remarked simply: “Let it be an arms race.”
Naturally, as president, he has been a keen supporter of a $1.7 trillion refurbishment of the entire U.S. nuclear weapons complex, including the building of new nuclear weapons. Nor has he hesitated to brag about U.S. nuclear prowess. In connection with his war of words with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, Trump boasted: “I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger and more powerful one than his.”
Russian leaders, too, though not as overtly provocative, have been impatient to build new nuclear weapons. As early as 2007, Putin complained to top-level U.S. officials that only Russia and the United States were covered by the INF Treaty; therefore, unless other nations were brought into the agreement, “it will be difficult for us to keep within the [treaty] framework.” The following year, Sergey Ivanov, the Russian defense minister, publicly bemoaned the INF agreement, observing that intermediate-range nuclear weapons “would be quite useful for us” against China.
By 2014, according to the U.S. government and arms control experts, Russia was pursuing a cruise missile program that violated the INF agreement, although Putin denied that the missile was banned by the treaty and claimed, instead, that the U.S. missile defense system was out of compliance. And so the offending missile program continued, as did Russian programs for blood-curdling types of nuclear weapons outside the treaty’s framework. In 2016, Putin criticized “the naïve former Russian leadership” for signing the INF Treaty in the first place. When the U.S. government pulled out of the treaty, Putin not only quickly proclaimed Russia’s withdrawal, but announced plans for building new nuclear weapons and said that Russia would no longer initiate nuclear arms control talks with the United States.
The leaders of the seven other nuclear-armed nations have displayed much the same attitude. All have recently been upgrading their nuclear arsenals, with China, India, Pakistan, and North Korea developing nuclear weapons that would be banned by the INF Treaty. Efforts by the U.S. government, in 2008, to bring some of these nations into the treaty were rebuffed by their governments. In the context of the recent breakdown of the INF Treaty, China’s government (which, among them, possesses the largest number of such weapons) has praised the agreement for carrying forward the nuclear disarmament process and improving international relations, but has opposed making the treaty a multilateral one―a polite way of saying that nuclear disarmament should be confined to the Americans and the Russians.
Characteristically, all the nuclear powers have rejected the 2017 UN treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons.
But the history of the INF Treaty’s emergence provides a more heartening perspective.
During the late 1970s and early 1980s, in response to the advent of government officials championing a nuclear weapons buildup and talking glibly of nuclear war, an immense surge of popular protest swept around the world. Antinuclear demonstrations of unprecedented size convulsed Western Europe, Asia, and North America. Even within Communist nations, protesters defied authorities and took to the streets. With opinion polls showing massive opposition to the deployment of new nuclear weapons and the waging of nuclear war, mainstream organizations and political parties sharply condemned the nuclear buildup and called for nuclear disarmament.
Consequently, hawkish government officials began to reassess their priorities. In the fall of 1983, with some five million people busy protesting the U.S. plan to install intermediate-range nuclear weapons in Western Europe, Ronald Reagan told his secretary of state: “If things get hotter and hotter and arms control remains an issue, maybe I should … propose eliminating all nuclear weapons.” Previously, to dampen antinuclear protest, Reagan and other NATO hawks had proposed the “zero option”―scrapping plans for U.S. missile deployment in Western Europe for Soviet withdrawal of INF missiles from Eastern Europe. But Russian leaders scorned this public relations gesture until Mikhail Gorbachev, riding the wave of popular protest, decided to call Reagan’s bluff. As a result, recalled a top administration official, “we had to take yes for an answer.” In 1987, amid great popular celebration, Reagan and Gorbachev signed the INF Treaty.
Although the rulers of nuclear-armed nations are usually eager to foster nuclear buildups, substantial public pressure can secure their acceptance of nuclear disarmament.
Dr. Lawrence Wittner, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is Professor of History emeritus at SUNY/Albany and the author of Confronting the Bomb (Stanford University Press).