Federal employees are demanding that President Donald Trump and Congress "stop playing chicken with our lives," warning that thousands of workers caught up in a US government shutdown are struggling to make ends meet.
As some 800,000 employees brace for their first missed paycheck later this week due to a partial shutdown that began December 22, a grim reality has set in for many, particularly those in low-paid federal jobs.
Trump and Democratic lawmakers are at an impasse over his demand for $5.7 billion to build a wall on the Mexican border, and non-essential government employees in several departments have been sent home on unpaid leave or are working with no immediate prospect of payment.
In poignant testimonials in the US Capitol, workers from offices like the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) said many of their colleagues faced swelling financial crises, unable to cover daycare costs, make mortgage payments or pay other bills.
"Many of our professionals are single mothers who are being forced to work without pay, and still have the responsibility to pay for childcare and other expenses, like gas to get to work," said Eric Young, a union representative for Bureau of Prison employees, the lowest paid law enforcement officers in the nation.
Security is also a growing concern, he said at a US Capitol event where 20 federal workers stood with Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer on Wednesday.
"This underfunding, the lack of staffing, is so bad, we have secretaries, cooks and teachers filling in every day behind missing correctional officers," Young said.
"If something happens to any of our professionals behind this distraction, blood will be on your hands," he added, gesturing towards the cameras at the back the room without singling out either side for blame.
"Stop playing chicken with our lives."
Many workers are living "paycheck to paycheck" but are embarrassed to admit it, said Holly Salamido, an employee at the Department of Housing and Urban Development and a leader in the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE).
They are missing car payments, risking having their children removed from daycare, and are facing eviction, all events that can hurt a person's credit rating, which creates lasting financial problems.
"The repercussions of this shutdown are real, and we need Congress to reopen the government immediately," Salamido said.
Steve Reaves, a 23-year US Army veteran who works for FEMA, said the agency that was prepared to let its staff recover and refuel after a brutal hurricane season and historic California wildfires is now seeing employees locked out of work and pay -- and many Americans grasping for FEMA's help.
"Anyone who needs insurance claims, property damages while we're out, and the American people ask 'Where is FEMA?' We're furloughed," he said.
"We need the government opened now."
AFGE president J. David Cox said members earned an average of about $500 per week, and a lapse in paychecks could spell disaster.
"Federal employees are absolutely, completely and without reservation opposed to this government shutdown lockout," he said.
"We oppose being collateral damage. We oppose the use of extortion instead of debate."
Trump delivered a nine-minute address to the nation Tuesday night laying out his argument for Congress funding his border wall, and his demand for border security.
He made no direct mention of federal workers.