As hundreds of thousands of federal employees marked the Christmas holiday with their families Tuesday unsure about the state of their jobs and paychecks, President Donald Trump asserted that “many” of those impacted by the partial government shutdown support it if it leads to the controversial U.S.-Mexico border wall he’s promised to his base for years.
But union leaders who represent many of those workers say that couldn’t be further from the truth.
“There should be no confusion about whether federal employees want the government to reopen. They are eager to get back to work. They unequivocally oppose using shutdowns as a means of resolving policy disputes. This is not about a wall, this is about 800,000 real people with real families and real bills to pay,” J. David Cox Sr., national president of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) — a union that represents about 700,000 government workers, including border patrol agents from the Department of Homeland Security — said in a statement to TIME.
However, the National Border Patrol Council (NBPC), a union that falls under the AFGE and supports nearly 17,000 border agents and personnel employed by U.S. Border Patrol, says that while the organization does not support the shutdown, it does support the border wall.
“We want border security, and there are many other things we want aside from the wall, but the wall is a big part of it,” Art Del Cueto, vice president of border patrol union, tells TIME. “I want the shutdown to end as soon as possible, but how I want it to end is for Congress to do their job and pass this bill because we need better border security. I don’t want the shutdown — no one wants the shutdown — but blame shouldn’t be placed on President Trump because Congress refuses to fund a budget that affects the American public.”
About 800,000 federal employees are impacted by the partial shutdown, with some furloughed while others are working without pay. Border patrol agents – along with other Department of Homeland Security personnel – are among those working without pay.
Although Trump had said he would be “proud” to shut down the government until the wall could be fully funded, he has since tried to shift the blame to Democrats — specifically for not supporting a House-passed bill that includes $5 billion for the funding wall. The White House continues to negotiate privately with Democratic congressional leaders, although the office of Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said the two sides remain “very far apart,” per the Associated Press.
On Tuesday (Christmas Day), Trump again vowed to keep the government shuttered until his wall is funded: “I can’t tell you when the government’s going to be open. I can tell you it’s not going to be open until we have a wall or fence, whatever they’d like to call it.”
When asked whether he had a message for federal workers either furloughed or working without pay, he replied that “many of those workers have said to me and communicated, ‘Stay out until you get the funding for the wall.'”
“These federal workers want the wall,” he added. “The only one that doesn’t want the wall are the Democrats.”
But Randy Erwin, national president of the National Federation of Federal Employees (NFFE), staunchly disagrees with that assertion.
“I have personally spoken to dozens of [impacted federal employees], and leaders relaying information from many more, and I have not had one single person say we should have a shutdown until they build a wall,” Erwin tells TIME.
“I do find the president’s comments in that regard a little bit ridiculous,” adds Erwin, whose organization represents more than 110,000 federal workers across the United States, in departments ranging from the Social Security Administration to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to the U.S. Department of Defense. “I think he’s grasping at straws trying to sway public opinion on this shutdown.”
He adds that the shutdown has a dire impact on many NFFE employees living paycheck-to-paycheck.
“We represent many workers making salaries in the high 20s to low 40s. It creates a real crisis for them to even have their pay shut off for short period of time,” he says. “It absolutely ruined the holidays for hundreds of thousands of federal employees.”
Tony Reardon, president of the National Treasury Employees Union (NTEU), also said in a Christmas Eve statement about the shutdown that “the anxiety level among federal employees is extremely high and on top of that, there is real anger that they are paying the personal price for someone else’s dysfunction.”
A new Treasury Employees Union survey also showed that nearly 80% of its members are “very concerned” about paying for their basic living expenses this month, and even more are tightening their belts as they worry about delayed or lost pay, the union said.
Erwin admits that while the employees they represent might have a range of opinions about Trump’s proposed border wall, there appears to be unanimity that the government should not be shut down because of it.
“Even if you agree with the wall do you want the government shut down over the wall? I’m not hearing anybody say that,” he says.
Erwin also says Trump’s words were particularly stinging since they were issued on Christmas Day.
“It makes people feel really disrespected. How detached can you be? These are real people with real families and financial obligations,” he says. “It just shows how willing he is to be cruel to people. Give these people a break … let them have Christmas dinner with their families.”