Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross defended his take on the financial challenges facing furloughed federal workers Thursday afternoon amid a firestorm over his earlier comments that he did not “understand” why they might need help from homeless shelters and food banks.
Ross said in an interview that his intention had been to make sure government workers were aware that loans could be an option as the shutdown continues.
“We’re aware, painfully aware, that there are hardships inflicted on the individual workers,” Ross said on Bloomberg. “All I was trying to do was make sure that they are aware that there are possible other things that can help somewhat mitigate their problems.”
The remarks come hours after Ross was asked about on CNBC about reports of some federal workers relying on charity for essentials as the shutdown enters its second month. He responded then by suggesting that furloughed employees should borrow money to make ends meet while the shutdown continues.
“Banks and credit unions should be making credit available to them,” Ross said. “Now true, the people might have to pay a little bit of interest, but the idea that it’s paycheck or zero is not a really valid idea.”
On Thursday morning, Ross also rejected the notion that the government shutdown — now entering day 34, the longest in U.S. history — was damaging the country’s reputation or economy in the long term.
“I think that is a great deal of hyperbole,” Ross said. “We’ve had shutdowns, albeit for not such a long period as we’ve been thus far, but put in the perspective: You’re talking about 800,000 workers. And while I feel sorry for the individuals that have hardship cases, 800,000 workers if they never got their pay — which is not the case, they will eventually get it — but if they never got it, you’re talking about a third of a percent on our GDP.”
Although furloughed workers will eventually receive back pay when the government reopens, many contract workers will not be able to make up for missed work.
Democrats were quick to slam Ross’s comments as out of touch with the reality that many furloughed employees face.
“I guess anybody at the top of the food chain is totally tone deaf,” Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va told reporters at the Capitol.
“I don’t know, is this the ‘let them eat cake’ attitude or ‘call your father for money?’” Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. responded when asked about Ross’s remark.