The shutdown created problems. Workers created solutions.

Oct 22, 2013

Here’s one for the “building our own solutions” file: The government shutdown left federal workers without paychecks for more than two weeks. Pretty soon, people at the union-owned Amalgamated Bank started hearing from customers who were falling behind on their bills.

The bank serves a lot of the federal unions and contractors' unions and immediately asked, What can we do to help?

They couldn’t speed up Senate negotiations, but they could use the tools they had—cash and credit.

In just a couple of days, the bank created a short-term loan program to help workers through their immediate cash crunch: 60-day loans of between $500 and $2,000 at no interest, no collateral or security needed. When times get tough, we’ll work with our clients even if it’s not going to generate huge profits.

Why would a bank offer no-interest loans that wouldn’t generate any real revenue?

Because it was founded by the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America (back in 1923) with a mission: “To serve the working men and women of this country,” explained Keith Mestrich, a bank vice president and manager of its Washington office.

They usually do that by offering financial services at good prices, but sometimes more is needed.

“When times get tough, we’ll work with our clients to offer our services, even if it’s not going to generate huge profits,” Keith said. “Most banks won’t lend to workers on furlough, because they’re worried they won’t pay it back.”

I love this because it's a great example of how a social-purpose business prioritizes its members and community over short-term profits. And still, Amalgamated is the largest union-owned bank in the U.S., with more than $3.5 billion in assets.

What I find meaningful here is that it's co-operative and mutual-aid enterprises solving a social need without relying on the government. Both projects are great examples of people coming together to tackle problems.

Another DIY response to the shutdown also caught my attention—this one’s from the tech world.

A few guys at a startup incubator in D.C. called 1776 launched a simple jobs board for furloughed employees to pick up freelance work at startup projects. It was quickly passed around the local tech community.

No one knew how long the shutdown would last, and these guys knew there were plenty of startups that needed qualified tech workers, and plenty of government IT workers who needed temporary work.

Within hours, developers and designers jumped in to collaborate. IT firm Blen Corp turned that message board into a website,, and new postings started showing up daily. The site got about 50,000 page-views and led to several placements.

Both projects are great examples of people coming together to tackle problems. These are the kinds of “do-it-ourselves” solutions that we need to see more of.

Sara Horowitz

As the founder of Freelancers Union, Sara has been a voice for freelancers for over two decades.