The Slatest

Wilbur Ross Doesn’t Understand Why Struggling Furloughed Employees Don’t Just Get Loans

Wilbur Ross sits on a couch at a financial event.
U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross
Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross has become the latest wealthy member of Trump’s cabinet to express confusion over the concept of financial hardship.

In an interview with CNBC on Thursday, Ross was asked about the economic and financial effects of the government shutdown on furloughed and unpaid workers. He insisted the effects weren’t that bad. When asked about federal employees who have flocked to food pantries after missing a paycheck, Ross expressed skepticism.

“Well, I know they are, and I don’t really quite understand why,” he said. “[T]he obligations that they would undertake—say borrowing from a bank or a credit union—are in effect federally guaranteed, so the 30 days of pay that some people will be out is no real reason why they shouldn’t be able to get a loan against it.”

He emphasized that because the government guaranteed workers they would eventually get paid, banks and credit unions would make credit available to them. “So there really is not a good excuse why there really should be a liquidity crisis,” he said.

Some banks and credit unions have been offering low- or no-interest payroll advances and loans for federal workers, and a fair number federal employees have likely seen this as a useful option for mitigating the financial stress of the shutdown. But getting a loan can be a long and difficult process, particularly for those who have little experience with financial institutions or those without strong credit ratings (who may instead feel forced to turn to more predatory or high-interest lenders). Many Americans are also reluctant to take on debt if they can avoid it. And, as Ross acknowledged, some might not find the idea of paying interest ideal. Ross, whose net worth is estimated at $700 million, did not see these reasons as real: “[T]he idea that it’s paycheck or zero is not a really valid idea,” he said.

Democrats seized the opportunity to remind the public of the administration’s inability to relate to middle- and working-class concerns. “Is this the ‘Let them eat cake’ kind of attitude?” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said later in response. “Or call your father for money?”

Sen. Chuck Schumer also criticized Ross, saying his comments “reveal the administration’s callous indifference toward the federal workers it is treating as pawns.” He added: “Secretary Ross, they just can’t call their stock broker and ask them to sell some of their shares.”

Ross was not alone Thursday in missing the mark on the shutdown’s effects on workers. White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow told reporters that federal workers were “volunteering” by coming to work without pay. When a reporter challenged Kudlow, he responded with frustration: “You know what, I’m not even going to go there. You know what I’m saying. It’s very clear… .” He continued:

And you know what else, with respect to people who do have financial hardships as some were asking, they are coming to work and giving the same 24/7 work they always did. And I will say to you, whatever semantic game you think you’re going to play with me—and I’m usually an easy going guy–give them credit, OK? They honor us. They honor us by their service, I don’t care whether you’re Republican or Democrat, I mean that sincerely. They honor us. Democrats have shut government down, it’s a—you know what I’m saying. They honor us. And they do it because of their love for the country and the office of the presidency and presumably their allegiance to President Trump, but whatever, they’re doing it. … You know, there’s a lot of wonderful people in this country. … I’ve become a great fan of the millenials. Thank you.

The comments echo to some degree the baseless claims made by Trump (who also said he could “relate” to federal workers who couldn’t pay their bills) that he had heard widespread support from furloughed employees, who said they would happily delay their paychecks for the sake of the border wall funding. Others have made similarly tactless statements: White House economic adviser Kevin Hassett said two weeks ago that furloughed employees might be “better off” because they are taking what he described as essentially a vacation. Lara Trump, the president’s daughter-in-law and former campaign aide, said this week in a message to furloughed workers to “stay strong” and that their financial hardship was “for the future of our country.” She reassured them, “It’s not fair to you, and we all get that, but this is so much bigger than any one person.”

Roughly 800,000 federal employees are furloughed or working without pay during the shutdown, and hundreds of thousands of government contractors are likely to never receive any retroactive pay. Many federal employees are set to soon miss their second paycheck of the shutdown, which is now on its 34th day.

As for Ross: His Commerce department currently lacks funding, and most of the more than 45,000 employees who work for him are facing down another paycheck of $0.00. But Thursday, he wanted to make it clear that talk of damage to the national economy and harm to the workers themselves was exaggerated. “Remember this,” he said on CNBC. “They are eventually going to be paid.”