Furloughed Government Employees Are Running Out of Menstrual Products

Over the last couple weeks, I Support the Girls, a nonprofit for menstrual equity, has been inundated by requests for period products from workers affected by the shutdown.

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Jan 24 2019, 10:09pm

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A nonprofit that typically delivers menstrual products in bulk to high-need communities has recently begun fielding individual requests from furloughed government employee facing the prospect of missing a second paycheck this week.

When the government is up and running, the menstrual equity organization I Support the Girls partners with social service groups to help members of vulnerable communities access pads, tampons, and menstrual cups, as well as bras and underwear. But when the ongoing shutdown stretched into its third week, founder Dana Marlowe realized federal employees and their families may need help too.

On January 10, the day employees missed their first paycheck, she posted across the organization's social media platforms, telling anyone affected by the shutdown to send an email if they needed menstrual hygiene products. Since then, she says I Support the Girls has received upwards of 75 requests —and she expects to receive many more as Senate leadership and President Donald Trump refuse to budge on negotiations to reopen the government.

"What we're seeing is unprecedented because we don't usually help individuals," Marlowe told Broadly on Thursday. "But periods don’t stop for furloughs."

Marlowe read off some of the emails she's received over the last few days, taking care to protect the identities of the senders. One was from the wife of a correctional officer at a federal prison. Another had a spouse in the Coast Guard, and needed menstrual products for herself as well as two teenage daughters. A third came from a contractor with the Federal Aviation Administration, who'd written to Marlowe that she had used most of her vacation days and was now accumulating "negative hours" in paid time off. "I could totally use some feminine hygiene products," she wrote. "Please tell me what I need to do."

Marlowe says that, given the uncertainty surrounding when the shutdown will end, I Support the Girls has provided each person who wrote to the organization as well as each menstruating person in their household with a three-month supply of menstrual products.

"When you hear that these are people working for the Coast Guard or the FAA, your knee jerk reaction is, That person has a good job," Marlowe says. "But many of these people are living paycheck to paycheck ... and they may be choosing between spending part of that last paycheck on maxi pads or tampons or putting it toward a meal for their family."

With federal 800,000 workers without any income, workers who are furloughed or currently working without pay have reportedly launched over 1,500 crowdfunding campaigns to pay for food and monthly bills. Others are working as Uber drivers, substitute teachers, and babysitters to make ends meet.

Meanwhile, private companies and individuals as well as nonprofits like I Support the Girls have tried to step in and fill gaps in need. Some chains like Potbelly and Sweetgreen are offering free meals at any of their nationwide locations to furloughed government workers on certain dates throughout the month. Chase bank is offering to waive or refund overdraft fees, while Wells Fargo and Bank of America have offered other payment assistance programs. And phone companies like AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon have offered a variety of flexible payment options and short-term assistance.

Marlowe said that while making mortgage payments and putting dinner on the table may be at top of mind for those looking to help furloughed workers—and top of mind for the workers themselves—it's easy to overlook the need for menstrual products, which she calls a "little thing" that's really a "big thing."

This philosophy underpins I Support the Girls' larger mission, which is to create menstrual equity for all. For Marlowe that means making sure people who menstruate everywhere have equal access to hygienic products, because a lack of access affects people's ability to "go to work, go to school, and participate in life with dignity," she says, citing Jennifer Weiss-Wolf, the author of Periods Gone Public: Taking a Stand for Menstrual Equity.

In this case, Marlowe wants to make sure that furloughed government employees are afforded the same.

"We’re not doing anything magnanimous—we're not paying off everyone's bills," she says. "We just want to make their lives a little bit easier in the way that we know how. "