Earlier this month, Jessica Barlow learned that she would finally be landing a good government job, working as a call center employee inside a federal building in Cleveland.
A 39-year-old mother of two, Barlow already works in the building’s daycare center, but under a federal contractor. Though she loves her job, she earns only $9.27 per hour. The call center job would bring her a salary $10,000 higher, and have better benefits and the stability of government work. She says that on Jan. 6 she was informed she’d be starting soon.
Then, on Monday, President Donald Trump announced a federal hiring freeze.
“We were waiting on our start dates,” said Barlow, who no longer believes she has a job, despite the long application procedures and background checks. “It was a 14-month process to get to the point we were at.”
Barlow views herself as part of the working poor. But under the Trump administration’s logic, she is part of the venal Washington “swamp” that needs to be drained. Never mind that Barlow works 350 miles from the Beltway, and says she and her husband can barely cover basic necessities for their 14-year-old daughter and 6-year-old son.
Trump promised the freeze while on the campaign trail, and delivered on it during his first week in office. Except under certain circumstances, vacancies in federal positions will not be filled for at least the next 90 days, as agencies “pause” to re-evaluate how they are staffed; the primary exceptions are for military, national security and public safety jobs. Although current employees will not be laid off, the administration hopes it will trim the federal workforce through attrition.
“We’ve got to respect the American taxpayer,” Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, explained Monday. “[T]o see money get wasted in Washington on a job that is duplicative is insulting.”
Trump campaigned on the idea of bringing good jobs “back to America,” but for those who had solid government positions on the line, their jobs are at risk of being taken away. With the hiring process bottled up, their lives are effectively on hold, leaving many unsure of how they’ll pay their bills if a job doesn’t materialize at the end of the freeze, if and when that comes.
When Kristin Williams, 55, heard about Trump’s hiring freeze, she called the Census Bureau to find out if she might still get a seasonal Census job that would last until Sept. 30. She’d already filled out extensive paperwork for the post and was waiting to hear on the next steps. But the staffer told her that as of now, the position would remain unfilled.
Williams, who lives in Pennsylvania, was counting on the job. She is a self-employed artist who sells her work on Etsy and has been struggling to re-enter the workforce ever since she took time off to take care of her mother, who was sick, for five years. When she tried get back on her feet in 2010, the job market was tough for someone with her skills.
“I have been underemployed since then,” Williams said. “It was at a point where it wasn’t even worth looking for jobs because it was like the whole middle was hollowed out. There were really low-paying crappy jobs or jobs where you had to have so much experience it wasn’t even worth applying.”
One reason she was excited about the Census job was that it would allow her to give money back to the government. She owes a fair amount in property taxes, she said, and was going to talk to the agent about a payment plan, hinging on the expectation that she would get this temporary work that would bring in new income.
“But now what am I going to tell them? I have absolutely no means of paying it,” Williams said, adding, “It’s starting to feel really really desperate. It’s just like, the last blow. I didn’t even cry. I’m just numb. I’m angry, I’m numb. I’m scared. I just don’t know what I’m going to do.”
The Census Bureau did not return a request for comment on the freeze.
Though the size of the federal workforce has remained fairly consistent over the last several decades ― actually decreasing as a share of the overall civilian workforce ― Republicans have long portrayed it as constantly ballooning.
GOP leadership praised Trump for instituting the hiring freeze, but it could prove more costly and damaging than they acknowledge. Democrats and federal employee unions have pointed to a Government Accountability Office study that analyzed a series of freezes in the late 1970s and early 1980s in which auditors found that they were “ineffective,” failed to substantially reduce the workforce while disrupting agencies, and led to “decreased oversight” and “lost revenue” for the government.
Human resource experts have warned that Trump’s freeze would merely encourage the most qualified workers to leave the government to pursue more promising options, leaving behind the least productive employees.
It also makes it harder to change jobs within the government, disrupting workers’ life plans. One Defense Department employee, who asked for anonymity to protect her job, recently received a tentative offer for a promotion within the agency that required relocating. She and her husband are veterans, a demographic disproportionately employed in federal jobs. They sold their house and put an offer on a new one. Then came the freeze.
“Now I’m just in this limbo where I’m probably going to have to rent a house, and I’m going to have to switch my kids’ schools. ... It’s very frustrating for us,” she said, adding that they were allowed to withdraw the offer on the new house. She said she was thankful that her current team is understanding about her situation and letting her stay in her position.
Other federal employees who work on seasonal shifts worry they won’t be let back on the job. A park ranger named Bob, who asked to not reveal his last name for fear of retribution, said that his start date of May 1 at a historical civil war park might be canceled.
The job pays $12.49 an hour, and Bob, in his mid-60s, is semi-retired. For him, the freeze is both a financial and emotional hit. Bob first went to the park with his wife on Memorial Day and fell in love with the spot after hearing about its history. Then and there, he resolved to give future visitors that same experience. He volunteered as a ranger for three years before becoming a paid ranger this last one.
“The people who do this don’t go out and read a script,” he said. “It is a labor of love. No one who wears that park service uniform does it for the money.”
A spokesman with the National Park Service said they were still looking for guidance as to whether their 10,000 seasonal park rangers could be rehired when the crowds begin to swell in the summer.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do after May 1,” Bob said. “I want to work and continue contributing. But we don’t know what’s going to happen and that’s as bad as anything else. It has created a huge upheaval for 10,000 families.”
At the heart of a federal hiring freeze is a belief that the government is in need of shrinking. But when it shrinks, it’s not just federal employees who are affected but also those people dependent on government workers, functions and agencies.
“Everyone is hurting for positions now, and they’re going to hurt even more,” said J. David Cox, the president of the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents 670,000 workers. “The real person who’s going to feel the pain is the person who waits longer to get their social security benefits, the veteran who waits longer to have a claim adjudicated, and someone with a safety problem at their workplace.”
In her daycare job, Barlow looks after the children of federal workers in her building, many of whom told her they’re concerned about their workloads now that open positions won’t be filled. One employee told her they were expecting to hire more than two dozen employees in the department Barlow was hoping to join. They don’t expect that will be happening now.
“It’s heartbreaking, and I don’t understand what the endgame is for Donald Trump,” she said. “It’s really frustrating to walk into a building and know there are empty desks upstairs.”