The partial government shutdown has now gone on for 22 days, making it the longest such closure in U.S. history.
Many of the affected federal employees had missed at least one paycheck as of Saturday, when the shutdown hit record length. The financial stress is leading some workers to look for other jobs, ask relatives for money, apply for unemployment or even go without essentials like medication. Meanwhile, other Americans are facing a host of inconveniences and hardships, from shuttered museums to delayed farm loans.
“We’ve dipped into our savings account already. If it keeps going, my husband said he’ll call his parents and see if they’ll lend us some money,” said DeCarann Speaks, a mother of two and the wife of a Border Patrol agent in Vermont who is working without a paycheck. “Some days I just want to sit and cry. But I have to stay positive for my children.”
President Donald Trump is insisting that Congress give him $5.7 billion to build a wall on the border with Mexico, a proposition Democrats describe as a costly and immoral boondoggle. With talks at a standstill in Washington, the president headed to the border on Thursday to make his case for the wall. He said he is considering declaring a national emergency to get the funding Democrats have denied him, a maneuver all but certain to be challenged in court.
The impasse has meant that roughly a quarter of federal government functions are no longer funded, with agencies including the Department of Homeland Security, the Interior Department and the Internal Revenue Service largely shut down. Approximately 380,000 federal employees have been furloughed and are out of work, while another 420,000 are still working as “essential” personnel but are not being paid.
“It’s just ridiculous that people have to suffer and go through hardship and be stressed out.”
The shutdown, which began Dec. 22, was technically the third to take place in 2018, although the first lasted a mere three days, and the second lasted just a few hours and did not result in any furloughs. There have been 21 similar funding lapses since 1976, but only a handful of major shutdowns in which workers went without pay. Until now, the longest one had been a 21-day shutdown starting in December 1995, amid a deadlock between then-President Bill Clinton and congressional Republicans.
The current closure had only marginal impact on the general public at first, when many people were on vacation for the holidays and government offices were closed anyway. But as the shutdown drags on with no obvious end in sight, Americans are growing more aware and more annoyed by the disruption. More than four in 10 Americans now consider the partial shutdown a very serious problem, according to a HuffPost/YouGov poll conducted Jan. 4 to 7.
The Trump administration has tried to mitigate some of the most noticeable effects of the shutdown to avoid public backlash. For instance, the National Park Service kept many parks open but with reduced staff, leading to piled-up trash and damaged vegetation in parks like Joshua Tree.
With the shutdown bleeding into tax season, the Internal Revenue Service is calling some employees back from furlough in order to process refunds after a change in policy from the White House. And the Agriculture Department announced a complicated plan to continue food assistance for the poor into February, to keep people fed and avoid further economic damage.
Government shutdowns are costly affairs. Federal agencies must spend time and energy developing contingency plans in the runup to a closure, then have to make up missed work once the government finally reopens. As the messy situation in national parks has demonstrated, the government’s work does not stop just because funds haven’t been appropriated for that work. Agencies will face a backlog of responsibilities to handle once they are fully operational again.
Shutdowns can also hurt the broader economy, as workers tighten their budgets due to missed paychecks and consumer confidence dampens. The Bureau of Economic Analysis estimated that the 2013 shutdown of 16 days reduced GDP for the fourth quarter of that year by 0.3 percentage points.
Congress has already appropriated funding for roughly three-quarters of the federal government, leaving many agencies unaffected by the shutdown. House Democrats, who assumed the majority last week, passed bills that would reopen shuttered agencies other than DHS, which is at the center of the funding dispute. But Republican leaders in the Senate have refused to take up those bills and stood alongside the president, who threatened to veto any legislation without full wall funding.
The House and Senate approved a bill to pay all federal employees who have been missing paychecks, including those who were furloughed. But Trump still has to sign the bill. If he does, the workers would not receive any pay until the government reopens and payroll is processed.
Meanwhile, workers must still figure out how to pay their bills without a regular paycheck. Many are turning to interest-free loans or applying for unemployment benefits, which workers must return if they eventually receive backpay.
Trump’s threat that the shutdown could go on “for years” rattled many workers unsure of how they’ll cover their mortgage and car payments. The shutdown is a particularly raw deal for employees working under federal contracts, as they are not directly employed by the government and typically don’t get backpay.
“Some days I just want to sit and cry. But I have to stay positive for my children.”
One such worker is Larry Howard, a 62-year-old guest services associate at the National Zoo in Washington. The zoo is part of the sprawling Smithsonian network, which closed on Jan. 2 as a result of the shutdown. Howard said he is employed by a non-profit contractor, the Friends of the National Zoo, earning $13.50 per hour in his part-time position. His last payday was Jan. 4, and he doesn’t expect to receive a check next week as he normally would.
Howard had to ask his landlord for leniency on his January rent, paying only $400 of the $800. He also asked for more time to pay his electric bill ― an indignity he says he shouldn’t have to suffer.
“The way this situation is, there’s no other choice but try to persuade them that they’ll get that money ... when I can get it to them,” said Howard, who is an activist with Good Jobs Nation, a union-backed group pushing for higher pay for federal contractors. “It’s just ridiculous that people have to suffer and go through hardship and be stressed out.”
Some Democrats are supporting a bill that would provide backpay for people like Howard who work under federal contracts and lost wages because of the shutdown. Such a bill has not made it into law in the past. “I hope that Congress will step up to the plate and pass some kind of bill for the contractors who aren’t getting anything,” Howard said.
Speaks, whose husband works for the Border Patrol along the U.S.-Canadian border, said both she and her husband have student loans to repay. She recently earned a degree in medical assisting and her loan repayments began just before the new year, right around the time her husband received his last paycheck.
For now, they are getting by on Speaks’ salary at her hospital. Although their two children are just 8 and 9 years old, “They understand that we have to budget really well right now,” Speaks said. The family halted their Netflix and Hulu subscriptions and put other non-necessities on hiatus, including a 10-year anniversary trip planned for this year.
Speaks said she found it particularly galling that members of Congress continue to get paid as federal employees work with their paychecks on hold.
“I just really wish they would focus on the people they’re affecting,” Speaks said. Workers like her husband and his colleagues “are out there risking their lives,” she added, “and they’re not getting paid. It’s not fair.”