Black and Shut down

“A government job used to mean it was a sure thing,” said U.S. Census Bureau employee Johnny Zuagar. “We cannot go to work [because of] a wall!”

The statistician is a 15-year employee with the Census and serves as the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) Census Council 241 President.

Zuagar’s one of the 800,000 federal employees affected by the partial government shutdown that began Dec. 22, 2018 after Congress refused to allot the $5.7 billion that President Donald Trump wants to build a wall on the U.S. southern border with Mexico.

The Maryland suburban husband (above), and father of three sons ages 8, 6 and 1, is furloughed until further notice. His family scaled back their post-Christmas plans because of the partial shutdown.

The Zuagars live in Prince George’s County, Maryland, the most affluent African-American county in the country.

“No one's on the roads. The parking lots are nearly empty at the Metro stops. That’s really strange considering everyone around here’s somehow connected to the federal government. Either you’re a federal employee or a contractor,” said Zuagar. But after three weeks of shutdown, he's wondering if he needs to look elsewhere for work.

“At the end of the day my first obligation is to my family. I can’t tell my sons, ‘Hey I’m on furlough for two months, three months and four months,’ because I have to pay my bills,” Zuagar said. “If I don’t hear anything by Friday, I need to start looking for another job.”

“The government shutdown is a slap in the face to the country and to the hardworking federal employees,” said Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) during a roundtable with government employees Monday. (Check out this Washington Post video of the meeting.)

“We are people. We have bills to pay. We need food. We need to eat to survive just like everybody else. It’s not a game to us,” said Census Bureau employee LaVerne Byrd.

“I know everybody’s talking about mortgage, car payments, car insurance. But let’s just talk about little things like medication,” said Tyra McClelland with the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency. “As of Friday I need to figure out which over-the-counter medication I need to go get. Do I go get the allergy medication? If my daughter has a cold do I go give her cold medication?”

Eric S. Yellin, an associate professor of history and American studies at the University of Richmond and author of Racism in the Nation’s Service: Government Workers and the Color Line in Woodrow Wilson's America, notes that the federal government has the most robust anti-discrimination programs of any workplace because of the federal employment provisions set in place to ensure equal opportunities for diverse and marginalized demographic groups.

"African Americans are 18 percent of the federal civil service and just 13 percent of the US population. They’re 32 percent of federal workers in D.C. In smaller communities where decent jobs are rare for Black workers, government jobs are usually the best there is," said Yellin.

“The president needs to stop playing games and put people back to work,” said U.S. Census Bureau employee Edward Hill. “I don’t know of any other company or any other place where you require people to work and not pay them.”

Zuagar says Trump should not look at federal workers as pawns in partisan politics, but as Americans looking for strong leadership.

“Your position [as] president doesn’t make you a leader. A true leader takes care of the people under them. A true leader eats last,” said Zuagar.

— Nicki Mayo is a digital consultant for The Crisis Magazine and a multimedia journalist for TV One‘s “Fatal Attraction,” “Justice By Any Means” and Thou Shalt Not.” Mayo is also a federal contractor directly affected by the partial government shutdown.