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10 January 2019

How the government shutdown is putting ordinary Americans in danger

Suspended food inspections and stressed-out TSA workers and FBI agents mean the government may be unable to prevent major public safety threats.

By Sophie McBain

The immediate effects of the US government shutdown, which has now stretched into its third week, are well known: 800,000 federal workers are no longer being paid and have now missed their first paychecks. The average government employee takes home $500 a week – and is unlikely to have a cushion to protect them from this kind of salary freeze. Those who are furloughed may be able to find temporary work or apply for unemployment benefits, others are working for free in what one union worker calls “voluntary servitude” while wondering how to cover their bills, or even pay for their transportation into work.

Americans who are dependent on government aid are also vulnerable. Food stamps have been guaranteed until February; after that there is no plan. If the shutdown continues through February and March, increasing numbers of Americans reliant on rent and housing subsidies will be affected. Some health clinics serving Native Americans are already at risk of shutting down because of the lack of federal funding.

Then there are the more insidious effects of the shutdown, the less obvious risks that affect everyone. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has announced it has been forced to shut down routine food safety inspections, raising the risk of outbreaks of foodborne illness such as E. Coli. Every year, foodborne illnesses send about 128,000 people in America to hospital and kill 3,000 – and that’s when regular inspections are taking place.

The FDA head, Scott Gottleib said on Twitter that he is taking steps to restore inspections of high-risk foods, which account for just under a third of domestic food inspections, including soft cheeses, seafood, unpasteurised juice, eggs, sandwiches, salads and infant formula. (Inspections of imported food are continuing as usual.)

This isn’t a cause for panic just yet: even when there isn’t a shutdown, food processing facilities aren’t constantly monitored, but inspected at set intervals. But, it might be enough to put you off your seafood paella. The director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, Andrew Rosenberg, told the New York Times that he was concerned about contaminated seafood ending up on supermarket shelves, and especially clams, oysters, mussels and other bivalves that can carry “very nasty stuff”.

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Even when workers are performing functions so vital to national security that they cannot be furloughed – whether that’s the TSA workers in charge of aviation security, the secret services and FBI or indeed food and drugs safety inspectors – there’s a very real risk that the stress of working unpaid will make them less good at their jobs.

The Atlantic highlights the research of Jirs Meuris of the University of Wisconsin, who has found that the more worried employees are about their personal finances the more error-prone they are at work. His research has found, for instance, that short-haul truck drivers who reported financial anxieties were more likely to crash. He estimated that employee financial worries were costing truck companies $1.3m a year because of preventable crashes.

In a statement, Meuris said:

“Based on my research, we should be worried about the impact of the current shutdown on our national security and health as thousands of government workers including those at the FBI, DEA, FDA, Border Patrol, and TSA work to protect us from threats while going without a paycheck and living in a state of financial uncertainty.

As their financial insecurity grows, we can be sure that our own security falters along with it. We need to recognize that a shutdown over border security may actually do more harm to it than what there may be to gain from it.”

Trump’s argument for a border wall is based on imagined dangers, and fears fabricated by right-wing politicians. The dangers posed by his extended shutdown are terrifyingly real.

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