WASHINGTON — Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross on Thursday said he didn’t understand why federal workers were visiting food banks during the government shutdown, saying they should instead seek low-interest loans from banks and credit unions to supplement their lost wages.
“I know they are, and I don’t really quite understand why,” Ross said on CNBC when asked about federal workers going to food banks. Ross is a billionaire and longtime friend of President Donald Trump.
“The idea that it’s paycheck or zero is not a really valid idea,” he said. “There’s no reason why some institution wouldn’t be willing to lend.”
Ross leads one of the agencies that is directly affected by the shutdown, and many of his employees haven’t been paid for weeks.
The White House is working to quell a growing anger among the 800,000 federal workers who are scheduled to miss their second paycheck this week, as many have begun calling in sick or refusing to show up for work. The Trump administration has scrambled to try to deflect the impact of the shutdown on the economy, but they’ve done this in part by requiring thousands of unpaid federal workers to continue doing their jobs.
Many of those workers are beginning to revolt, either calling in sick or saying they can’t afford gasoline.
“It’s kind of disappointing that the air traffic controllers are calling in sick in pretty large number,” Ross said.
This sort of grin-and-bear-it line is similar to the position Trump has taken, saying he believes federal workers will make “adjustments” during the shutdown. Many federal workers are reticent to quit, even though they aren’t being paid, because they will lose benefits they have accrued for years. So they are trying to see how long they can hold on financially as the shutdown shows no sign of ending.
Food banks all over the country have reported a spike in visits, and some have begun setting up services in discreet locations to help federal workers who are worried about the stigma of asking for free food.
Trump has signed a bill into law that would repay the federal workers for their lost wages when the shutdown ends, but he is also preparing for the shutdown to stretch on for several more months. Trump has demanded that Congress appropriate $5.7 billion to build a wall along the Mexico border, and Democrats have said they will not support it.
Ross’ jab at the air traffic controllers came a day after organizations that represent air traffic controllers, pilots, and flight attendants warned of major safety and security risks that the shutdown was causing.
“In our risk-averse industry, we cannot even calculate the level of risk currently at play, nor predict the point at which the entire system will break,” the groups said. “It is unprecedented.”