Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross on Thursday offered little sympathy for the approximately 800,000 federal government workers going unpaid in the shutdown

By Diane Herbst
January 24, 2019 02:12 PM

President Donald Trump‘s Commerce Secretary, Wilbur Ross, on Thursday offered little sympathy for the approximately 800,000 park workers, air traffic controllers and other federal government workers who are unpaid and struggling in the ongoing shutdown.

When asked on CNBC’s Squawk Box about some employees turning to “homeless shelters to get food,” Ross, who is reported to have assets numbering $700 million, replied: “Well I know they are, and I don’t really quite understand why.”

He said he felt “sorry for the individuals that have hardship cases,” but he downplayed the overall economic impact of the shutdown: “800,000 workers … you’re talking about a third of a percent on our GDP, so it’s not like it’s a gigantic number overall.”

Ross said the unpaid or furloughed workers “will eventually” get their pay, referring to a bill signed by the president last week. (Workers in previous shutdowns have received back pay when the shutdowns ended.)

Because of the guarantee of these future paychecks, Ross said he believed that banks and other lenders should be “making credit available” to the unpaid workers who need money in the interim.

Ross said the biggest downside would be workers having to pay “a little bit of interest” on the loans until their back pay is issued.

However contractors such as Smithsonian security guard Donna Kelly, who turned to food stamps to eat, may never receive any compensation for their forced time off.

In another clip from his appearance CNBC, Ross also said that it’s “kind of disappointing” that air traffic controllers are calling in sick. When told they couldn’t afford to take care of their families, he replied, “They are eventually going to be paid.”

The historic shutdown is entered its 34th day on Thursday — the longest in American history — prompted by a standoff over Trump’s call for southern border wall, to stave off a “crisis.” House Democrats have rejected such a barrier as immoral and ineffective and have urged other negotiations over border security instead.

In addition to the 800,000 federal workers, another 1.2 million federal contractors are also affected, according to economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman.

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi responded to Ross’s remarks, saying: “Is this the ‘let them eat cake’ kind of attitude, or ‘call your father for money’ or ‘this is character-building for you, it’s all going to end up very well?’ ”

Others jumped in on Twitter.

Walter Shaub, former head of the U.S. Office of Government Ethics and a Trump critic, wrote that this “malignant indifference is why we have the Trump shutdown.”

A White House reporter for Yahoo, Hunter Walker, added this bit of color around Ross’ remarks: “I’ve seen [him] padding around the West Wing in custom made velvet loafers adorned with the Commerce Department seal.”