Day 18 of the government shutdown and my husband, an essential Federal Aviation Administration national airways systems operations manager, came to me and said that we had to buy cat litter and Kleenex. “This will be about 30 bucks,” he said. “It’s a big expenditure right now.”
Thirty bucks 19 days ago was not a big deal, but with the government shut down and no end and no pay in sight, every dollar counts. Our last paycheck was near the end of December, and went to cover our mortgage, electric bill, car note, insurance, cable and internet, cellphone bill, and medications. I paid everything at once, not knowing when this shutdown would end and when we would get another paycheck. We are a one-income family ― my husband’s paycheck.
My husband, whose identity I am keeping hidden for fear of agency retribution or loss of his job, is an essential government employee, which, unlike furloughed employees, means he must go to work or lose his job. But, like furloughed workers, he is not getting paid. It will depend on Congress whether he eventually receives back pay. His job helps ensure the safety of the flying public. He manages resources (flight data and radar systems) for the air traffic controllers, which can be a stressful operation if one of the systems breaks or goes offline.
During this shutdown, he has worked every day since New Year’s, and will not have a scheduled day off for four more days. He also has been pulling overtime occasionally, as there are not enough workers to man the systems.
Each day this shutdown continues, he and his co-workers become more nervous. One co-worker has three sons and is worried about feeding them. Another is worried about paying her daughter’s college tuition. Some of his co-workers said they were running out of money entirely and will soon have to figure out how to get to work, since they won’t be able to afford gas. They are paying for school, mortgages, groceries, light bills and other everyday things, and are not receiving a paycheck. This cannot hold.
We have little faith that the president understands the plight that we and 800,000 other government workers are in — the serious and real decisions about food, shelter, lights, gas that are being made right now.
My husband has diabetes. I have asthma, severe allergies that require three medications, and anxiety and depression. We have been stretching the budget as far as possible; we’ve canceled doctor appointments, suspended IRA contributions, shopped our freezer and pantry, have not been able to pay our $500 homeowner association fees, did not renew our Costco membership, and kept the heat very low and the lights off for most of the day to save on our electric bill.
We are responsible people. We have never been frivolous or spendthrifts. We drive newer used cars, buy generic brands, cook our meals at home, haven’t had a vacation in years, and always buy things on sale. We live in a modest house. We save for retirement, pay our bills, and add to our savings when we can. But when you’ve spent $15,000 on a new roof that needed to be torn down to the decking after Hurricane Harvey and you had to put in new floors, savings are pretty much depleted.
I check our bank account and the budget every few days to see how long we can go without a paycheck. We have enough money to last into February, but after that, we are in serious trouble. The money we do have can only pay for bills, groceries, and essentials like that cat litter. If we have an emergency — a car breaks down, an illness, hospitalization, anything, really — what money we do have will be in jeopardy.
I have tremendous gratitude for help we’ve received, like a few gift cards for Amazon and Walmart, which went to buy one of my allergy medications, toothpaste, rice, my husband’s Nescafé, and cat food.
I’ve also heard from people that it’s basically a vacation, right? But I’m not quite sure what vacation one would go on that has them worrying about paying for toilet paper, food, medication and electricity.
We try to offer thanksgivings for any money in the bank, a roof over our head, food on the table, a bed to sleep in, and central heating, and we pray a lot that this ends, soon. However, we have little faith that the president understands the plight that we and 800,000 other government workers are in — the serious and real decisions about food, shelter, lights, gas that are being made right now.
Even friends, family members and, of course, internet trolls, have voiced their opinions on how “these people” (federal employees) should have prepared better, saved three months’ expenses “because Dave Ramsey says that’s what you should do.” I’ve also heard from people that it’s basically a vacation, right? But I’m not quite sure what vacation one would go on that has them worrying about paying for toilet paper, food, medication and electricity. And no federal worker whom I or my husband has spoken with wants to trade their paycheck for a wall.
This situation demonstrates the impact that this political fight has on working families in America. American workers should not be held hostage to any political whim or budgetary fight. When 800,000 government employees, including us, who have worked hard and given their lives to make this country a safer and better place are either forced out of their job or, like my husband, forced to work without a paycheck, this highlights the glaring divide between the economic class structures in this country and the quick descent of class mobility.
This must end. This is not OK.
Amanda Auchter is the author of The Wishing Tomb, winner of the 2013 PEN Center USA Literary Award for Poetry and the 2012 Perugia Press Book Award, and The Glass Crib, winner of the 2010 Zone 3 Press First Book Award for Poetry. Her recent work appears in The Golden Shovel Anthology: New Poems Honoring Gwendolyn Brooks (University of Arkansas Press, 2017) and Like a Fat Gold Watch: Meditations of Sylvia Plath and Living (2018). She holds an MFA in creative writing from Bennington College and lives in Houston. Follow her on Twitter @ALAuchter.