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Opinion: Volunteers Step Up To Care For Furloughed Federal Workers

People wait in line at Chef Jose Andres' World Central Kitchen for free meals to workers affected by the government shutdown in Washington, DC.
Pablo Martinez Monsivais
People wait in line at Chef Jose Andres' World Central Kitchen for free meals to workers affected by the government shutdown in Washington, DC.

Government employees are often the targets of jokes and wisecracks. But a lot of Americans have now stepped up to help furloughed government workers get through these weeks of enforced idleness or compulsory work for no pay.

Chef Jose Andres, who has provided so much food aid to victims of hurricanes and wildfires, opened a kitchen right on Pennsylvania Avenue — yes, not far from the Trump Hotel — to give free meals to furloughed federal workers, and food to bring home for their families.

The lines are long. The Washington Post found a woman named Mary Wilkinson as she handed out $20 bills to workers who waited to eat.

"These are people that I owe a debt to," she said, "because they're doing a job on my behalf and they're not being paid."

The Capital Area Food Bank has opened five pop-up centers, and report they are serving out-of-work workers from the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Homeland Security, and the National Institutes of Health.

"Individuals who never had to request food," Radha Muthiah, the food bank's president, told The New York Times. "Many had donated, but had never expected to be on the receiving end."

The Farmer's Daughter Restaurant, in North Easton, Massachusetts, where Chandra Gouldrup is chef, offers a free meal of eggs, toast, and smashed potatoes to federal employees. Chef Edward Lee in Louisville offers free meals at his Whiskey Dry and Milkwood restaurants. He told the Courier-Journal, "We're all family in Kentucky."

The Top Knot Beauty salon in Metairie, Louisiana, offers free haircuts to federal employees. Adrienne Lopez, a stylist who is the daughter of retired FEMA workers, told us, "This is an hour you can have to be taken care of."

People are dropping off cans of soup and boxes of ramen noodles at Orlando airport to give food aid to unwaged TSA workers. Some food vendors at Atlanta's airport are providing free lunch for the people who staff security lines for no pay.

Webster Bank of Connecticut offers interest free-loans to the estimated 1,500 federal workers in the state, who cannot receive unemployment assistance during the shutdown. PNM, a New Mexico power company, says they'll keep lights and heat on for federal employees who may be behind on their bills because they're not being paid.

And members of the Mizpah Congregation synagogue in Chattanooga have distributed $20 gift cards to federal employees at their local airport because it is written in Leviticus, "You shall not steal, and you shall not keep for yourself the wages of a laborer..." Rabbi Craig Lewis says, "There's something terribly wrong when people are working hard and not earning their wages."

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Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.