On Monday, Jojo heard from her children’s school that her two sons were running low on diapers and needed her to replenish their supply. It was the kind of thing that normally would have been a routine reminder. But this week, it filled her with dread because she doesn’t have the money to buy them.
Jojo, who requested to be referred to just by her nickname because she and her fellow employees were told not to speak to the press, is one of about 420,000 U.S. federal employees currently working without pay. Another 380,000 employees are furloughed due to the record-setting partial government shutdown, which started on Dec 22.
Jojo is a corrections officer at a federal prison in Texas and is the sole earner of her household. Her husband stays home to care for their two sons, who are 3 and 4. The boys both have autism, are non-verbal and recently aged out of home services.
After missing at least one paycheck, many federal workers can’t pay for basics like food and medication and are taking desperate measures to get those items. Affording diapers, a costly expense even for families earning paychecks, has become a particularly difficult problem. Going without them isn’t an option and there are no federal government programs that offer them.
“I can’t not change them. They can’t survive like that,” Jojo told HuffPost. “You have to take care of the little ones. You don’t want to jeopardize their health and wellness.”
I can't not change them. They can't survive like that. Jojo, federal employee working without pay
Jojo earns about $2,000 a month, and the family has been living paycheck-to-paycheck since they had children. In addition to their everyday expenses, they pay for special twice-weekly therapy services for their boys. Insurance covers most of the cost, but the family is required to pay $30 for every session. Because Jojo’s job doesn’t offer paid maternity leave, she had to take a few unpaid weeks off each time, during which she accrued $6,000 in credit card debt that she’s still paying off.
Diapers cost her about $120 a month, and Jojo couldn’t afford to pay her mortgage or car note bills this month, either.
Jojo was relieved to learn from a friend that she could turn to the Texas Diaper Bank to get some help. The San Antonio-based nonprofit is a two-hour drive from her house, but even after accounting for fuel costs, she said making the trek is still financially worthwhile.
The group is offering six months’ worth of diapers and wipes to government employees and contractors affected by the shutdown. Jojo plans to make the drive on Wednesday after she finishes her eight-hour shift at work.
While the Texas Diaper Bank currently has the resources to provide extra supplies to government employees who may be seeking help for the first time, demand could very well exceed capacity, said Ashley Hernandez, program manager at the nonprofit.
The group typically supports 20 families a day. On Tuesday alone, after announcing that it was extending help to families affected by the shutdown, the organization gave out diapers to about 25 families, and more calls are coming in.
It’s likely that many nonprofits, especially those that provide diapers, simply don’t have the resources to meet this kind of additional demand, said Joanne Goldblum, CEO and founder of the National Diaper Bank Network.
“Nonprofits don’t have more money because there’s a shutdown,” Goldblum said. “It impacts and pushes on the resources of organizations that are already straining to meet the needs of people who rely on them on a day-to-day basis.”
The National Diaper Bank Network comprises more than 200 local diaper banks that follow a similar model to that of food banks. The local agencies provide diapers, wipes, feminine hygiene products and services to struggling families. Goldblum said the organization has seen a noticeable uptick in need since the shutdown, particularly among Coast Guard families and communities in the greater Washington, D.C., area, where there are high levels of federal employment.
Although the network distributes about 52 million diapers a year, it’s still not enough. In Connecticut alone, the diaper bank gives out around 1 million diapers a year, according to Goldblum.
Other diaper-specific groups and general nonprofits say they’re overwhelmed with requests for diapers from federal employees right now. The Cloth Option, a Massachusetts-based nonprofit that just launched at the beginning of this month, provides reusable diapers. Since announcing on Facebook this week that its services are available to federal employees, the group has gotten a steady stream of applications, said Sadie Cora, chair of the group’s board of directors.
One application that stuck out to Cora was from a mother who has four children and is pregnant with her fifth. Her husband was furloughed and she said in her request that she was “scared” because she had no idea when they were going to see a paycheck again.
“This is real for people,” Cora said.
The Massachusetts Military Support Foundation, which provides aid to military personnel based in Massachusetts, said it can barely keep up with demand. It set up five pop-up pantries for Coast Guard families affected by the shutdown. In Rhode Island and Boston, the group went through three months’ worth of diapers in two weeks, said Don Cox, the foundation’s president. Cox said his organization is spending about six times what it normally spends per week to meet the needs of these military families.
While the families are grateful for the help, they’re also weighed down by stress, Cox said.
“If you didn’t get paid, and you had your Christmas bills, and your car insurance was due and you weren’t sure when next paycheck was coming in, how would you feel?” he asked.
If you didn’t get paid, and you had your Christmas bills, and your car insurance was due and you weren’t sure when next paycheck was coming in, how would you feel? Don Cox, president of the Massachusetts Military Support Foundation
While these organizations are providing crucial services, many families might not even be aware that they’re available. Others might not live anywhere near an agency and may be forced to take desperate measures as a result.
Teremy Henriquez, a furloughed federal employee who works for the Department of Agriculture in Puerto Rico, has a 1-year-old son. She’s running low on diapers and has been keeping her child home from daycare to more closely monitor how many diapers he goes through and make them last a little longer. It’s a last resort for a lot of struggling families: Rationing diapers can lead to diaper rash and other health risks.
Jojo is grateful that her situation hasn’t come to that. But she has plenty of other things to worry about right now. As the bills continue to pile up, she’s considering where she can pick up another job, possibly at a nearby McDonald’s.
“I was raised to go get a good job and support my family, in order to live a happy and healthy life,” Jojo said. “I went out and got a good job to support my family ― to allow them to be happy and healthy and not worry. Now, I’m worried.”
HuffPost readers: Are you affected by the government shutdown? Email us about it. If you’re willing to be interviewed, please provide a phone number.