Toussaint column: Slavery should be illegal – even among federal workers |

Toussaint column: Slavery should be illegal – even among federal workers

I work without pay. I don’t get paid for writing this column, or for much of my other writing, or for the artwork I donate to local causes.

That’s called volunteering.

I volunteer because I can. I’m retired and able to pay my bills with Social Security and investments. Before I turned 65, I didn’t have the luxury of volunteering much because my income (from the six part-time and seasonal jobs I held during the last year I worked) barely kept pace with my bills.

I know what it’s like to barely have one’s head above water. For years, missing a paycheck would have meant defaulting on housing, medical insurance, or not being able to buy medications, food or gas.

Many of the 15,700 furloughed federal workers in Colorado find themselves in that situation. Reviewing data from the 2013 government shutdown, the New York Times found that almost “two-thirds of federal workers likely have less than two weeks of expenses set aside to live.” It’s not surprising that 20 percent of the unemployment claims filed in Colorado have come from furloughed federal workers.

Around 450,000 workers — notably those from TSA, customs, the FDA, the EPA and the Park Service — have been forced to work without pay. (As of this writing, 46,000 IRS workers have also been added to the must-work-without-pay list.)

In my paid working career, I was furloughed twice. I did have a little financial cushion, but it still meant deferring medications, canceling Netflix and social outings and juggling bills. It often takes months to replace a full-time job; selling possessions, and odd jobs do little to fill the hole. When and if back pay arrives, it doesn’t make up for late fees or repair one’s credit rating.

Although the California universities that employed me called their layoffs “unpaid leave” or more euphemistically “unpaid vacation,” it was nothing of the sort.

If I had been forced to work during these stressful, unpaid periods, I would have viewed the experience as “involuntary servitude.” That’s a nicer term than slavery, but there’s not much difference.

Multiple federal employees’ unions last week filed a lawsuit alleging that forced work-without-pay did indeed constitute involuntary servitude. U.S. District Judge Richard J. Leon didn’t explicitly agree — or disagree — but he left the status quo alone. He said that if he allowed unpaid federal employees to stay home, it would, at best, create “chaos and confusion.” It could be “catastrophic”, putting lives at risk.

That’s probably true, and saving lives is a worthy public goal.

The goals of the disputed border wall, according to Trump and GOP advocates, are to protect American lives and stem the flow of drugs across the U.S.-Mexico border.

Ironically, shutting down the government undermines those goals. The reason: The lion’s share of terrorists and drugs come through highway checkpoints hidden in cars, through ports on ships, and through airports—where they are found by (furloughed) customs, border patrol and TSA agents.

Homeland Security secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and other administration officials have repeatedly referred to 3,755 “known or suspected terrorists” who were blocked from entering the U.S. in fiscal 2017. That number comes from the Department of Homeland Security, which compiles a “watch-list” of suspected terrorists. Most of the watch-listed terrorists who were stopped — 2,107 of them — attempted to enter the U.S. by air. Six suspected terrorists were intercepted at our southern border, while 91 were stopped trying to enter from Canada.

Similarly, U.S. Customs and Border Protection data reveals that during the first 11 months of fiscal 2018, 90 percent of the heroin, 88 percent of the cocaine, 87 percent of the methamphetamine and 80 percent of the fentanyl that was captured (by now-unpaid workers) had been smuggled across the border via legal customs points.

So why would anyone who seriously wanted to stop the flow of drugs or the infiltration of terrorists subject those on the front lines to financial hardship? Or piss them off?

Border Patrol agents, Customs and Border Protection officers, immigration judges and Coast Guard crews all work directly on our border security problems, and all are among those who have been working without pay since Dec. 22. Worse yet, the Trump administration has told the states that they can’t offer unemployment benefits to federal employees who are being forced to work without pay.

That puts a whole new spin on the term “public servant.”

Tell me again why anyone wanting to stem drugs or terrorists would want to turn our public service workers into indentured servants?

Nicolette Toussaint lives in Carbondale. Her column appears monthly in the Post Independent.

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