Maxing out credit cards. Borrowing money from relatives. Searching for interest-free loans.
Federal workers and their families are doing whatever they can to save a few dollars and eke by as the partial government shutdown continues with no imminent end in sight. Many are fearful weeks will go by without another payday, forcing them to take on debt or find side jobs in order to cover housing and food costs.
“We’re going to have to trim some fat and see how long we last,” said Scott Reyna, a former air traffic controller whose wife works for the Transportation Security Administration. She isn’t being paid during the shutdown, even though she continues to work.
“I’m still getting my pension, so we’ll be living on that and credit cards until they’re maxed out,” Reyna said. “After that, I have no idea.”
For Kathryn Smith, the shutdown has meant forgoing her medication for lupus in order to pay the bills and buy food.
“My husband is a disabled vet. I have lupus. I’m disabled,” said Smith, whose husband is a furloughed federal worker. “I can’t get my medications right now, because, what are we going to do? Make sure you have your groceries or make sure you have your medication. It’s going to put me in a flare, and we know, but what can we do?”
She and her husband had some savings, but they exhausted a chunk of that money recently when they had to pay veterinary bills after an unexpected emergency with their dog.
“Do you know how embarrassing it is to go to your kid and say, ‘Hey, I have to borrow the house payment?’” Smith said. “We had to go to our son. He’s being supportive as much as he can, but he has an infant in his house. We shouldn’t be borrowing money from our kids.”
The government shutdown that began Dec. 22 has left 380,000 federal workers furloughed and another 420,000 working without pay. (Roughly three-quarters of government functions have already been funded by Congress and are not affected by the impasse.) President Donald Trump and Democratic leaders have made little headway in recent days as Trump continues to demand more than $5 billion for a wall ― or perhaps a steel barrier of some kind ― along the southern border.
Meanwhile, federal employees and contractors are reckoning with the possibility that the shutdown will drag on for months, leaving them no steady income to pay mounting bills. Federal workers have received back pay after previous shutdowns, but only retroactively through an act of Congress after the government has reopened.
The shutdown is already the second-longest on record. Trump has said that it could last for “years” if Democrats don’t agree to his demands ― a warning that’s rattled feds with dwindling bank accounts.
Nathaniel Shenton, a federal worker based in Maryland, said he received his last paycheck just before the New Year. He said he had enough savings put away to support his wife and two children for roughly one pay period without a check. But if the shutdown stretches into the latter half of January, he isn’t sure how he’ll cover his mortgage, car payments and the groceries.
“The real thing is if we miss two paychecks. If we miss two, I’m pretty screwed, to be honest,” said Shenton, who is classified as “essential” and has continued to work during the shutdown. “We just don’t know when it’s going to end. There’s no indication, no sign that there’s any kind of headway being made.”
Shenton said he plans on talking to his mortgage lender about deferring a payment, and hopes to get an interest-free loan through his bank, Navy Federal Credit Union. For now, he and his wife have stopped driving anywhere unless necessary to save gas money, and have resolved to cut out the pricier organic foods for their 5-year-old daughter and 2-year-old son.
“We’re not millionaires,” he said of the typical federal worker. “It’s incredibly stressful and it can be really damaging for us.”
Arash, a federal employee who is still working during the shutdown, has cut out entertainment costs in his life, like going to dinner with friends, Netflix and Hulu. He was lucky enough to get extensions on his two credit cards, but now he’s looking at taking out another credit card that offers zero percent interest for the first year, just so he can have an extra line of money.
“I think I make a decent salary, but that doesn’t mean I don’t live paycheck to paycheck,” said Arash, who asked to be identified by only his first name. “My extended family relies on me financially as well. ... There’s a lot of financial anxiety that goes into it because there’s just no clear end goal. There doesn’t seem to be any progress.”
“If we miss two [paychecks], I’m pretty screwed, to be honest.”
Daniel Moragne, a federal contractor in Louisiana who isn’t even sure if he’ll get back pay, is, at the age of 67, wondering if he’ll lose his apartment if the federal government doesn’t get its act together.
While the Office of Personnel Management put out sample letters for federal workers to use to ask for leniency with their rent or other payments to creditors, for people like Moragne, it’s not that simple. He pays his rent online, and he doesn’t even have a way to personally contact his landlord. Therefore, he can’t ask for leniency or explain that it’s not his fault that the government can’t get its act together.
“If I can’t pay my rent, they will probably move to evict me, and I’d be without a place to stay. ... I might be able to stay with my brother who lives here in town. He’s fairly close. But that’s not a given,” he said. “I don’t know. ... I just wish they’d do their job.”
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