As the government shutdown barrels toward a month, some of the 800,000 federal employees impacted are in financial straits. The end of last week marked the first time workers did not receive a full paycheck. As a result, many are wondering how they’ll be able to pay bills.
According to real estate company Zillow, federal workers owe a combined $438 million in monthly mortgage and rent payments. Homeowners owe roughly $249 million while renters pay about $189 million a month.
Various government agencies have issued tips and letters for federal employees to help them weather the storm. Tips included things like holding a garage sale and doing maintenance work in exchange for rent.
“They’re insulting and absurd,” says Jacqueline Simon about the guidances. “It shows how out of touch [they] are with the lives of middle class people.” Simon is the policy director with the American Federation of Government Workers (AFGE), the largest federal employee union in the country, representing 700,000 government employees. The union tried to sue the Trump administration over delayed paychecks because of the shutdown, but a federal judge declined to compel the government to pay employees who are being forced to work with no pay.
“Our members are the rank and file. The federal correction officers, TSA officers, meat and poultry inspectors,” says Simon. “People who have very modest salaries who, after they pay their bills take home $500-$600 a week. They don’t have any cushion. This could be a disaster.”
A disaster is exactly what Suzette Pump says is waiting to happen to her family if her husband William isn’t paid soon. The couple lives in Vancouver, Wash.; he is a project coordinator for the Federal Aviation Administration. He’s worked for the government for 39 years, and has weathered government shutdowns before.
In the past, Pump says her husband was furloughed. But this time around, he was deemed essential and told to report to work. He worked without pay until last week, when he was told to go home.
The shutdowns, Pump complained, are “more frequent” now than ever before, and full of chaos. They’re frustrated, and also worried what will happen if the shutdown drags on for much longer and they’re forced to rely on just her paycheck.
‘They don’t like being pawns’
At 27 days, the partial shutdown is now the longest in modern history. President Trump has vowed to keep it going for “months, or even years” if he is not given the requested $5.7 billion in funding to build a wall along the southern border. He claims that many federal workers “approve” of his hardline tactic, but Simon disagrees.
“They’re opposed to it completely apart from border security issues,” she said. “They don’t like being pawns. They don’t like being an afterthought or collateral damage. It’s very insulting their boss, the president, thinks so little of them. He’s said a lot over this crisis and it’s like, does he have any idea how federal employees’ budgets are?”
According to Simon, it’s just another hit in a long list including frozen pay, cuts to benefits, and a requirement to contribute more to their pension.
Pump estimates she has about two months’ worth of of savings before she will be unable to pay her mortgage — her top priority. And that’s only if she doesn’t pay other bills. She worries that she will lose her home if she misses payments.
“For us, the stress is tremendous,” Pump said.
In Sunset, Utah, Brent Reeve is also worried. The 63-year-old works for the IRS in the IT department. He’s been furloughed since the start of the shutdown.
Reeve is no stranger to shutdowns, living through seven others since he started working at the IRS in 1985. He says he “saw this one coming” and has prepared.
Though he has some bank loans and credit card debt, Reeve feels fortunate that he doesn’t have an active mortgage on his home. But that isn’t enough to alleviate all his worries.
“I’m living off my savings right now,” he says. “But that won’t last long. I should be good through the end of January, but if we miss more than this one paycheck it will be problematic.”
“It makes me feel like I’m invisible and I’m a federal employee,” Reeve adds. “Trump doesn’t seem to think we even exist or that we are even worthy of his notice. He’s just so focused on his wall that he’s ignoring us.”
Even though he’s been in this spot before, Reeve says he’s more concerned about this shutdown than he was in the past: “I knew with all the others both sides would get together and negotiate — and that’s what they did,” he explains.”This time there’s no sense that there is a common ground. That’s what worries me.”
Reeve lives a few minutes away from Ogden, Utah, where the IRS is a major employer. Small businesses in the city are feeling the crunch; restaurants are forced to cut back on worker shifts as fewer federal workers come in for lunch or dinner.
Reeve says that half the city are federal employees, noting that during peak tax season the IRS employs over 6,000 people. Reeve claims that two-thirds aren’t working due the shutdown. This week, the IRS announced a decision to bring back 46,000 employees to work on tax refunds — without pay.
Looking to the 2020 election
The president has repeatedly lashed out at Democrats, blaming them for the shutdown. Tuesday, he invited several moderate Democrats to a lunch in the hopes he could gain Democratic support for border wall funding. They all declined.
But the majority of Americans blame Trump. More than half point the finger at the president and Congressional Republicans for the lapse in government funding. In the four weeks since the shutdown started, the president has seen his disapproval rating climb by five points.
Republicans, facing a tough electoral map in the 2020 general elections have started to buckle under the strain, increasingly breaking with the Trump administration over the border wall fight. A bipartisan group of senators has formed in an effort to end the shutdown. But without a signal from the president that he’ll sign any bills without full border wall funding, it’s unlikely those bills will make it to a vote.
“Most of our efforts are on Mitch McConnell to bring this [the House bill] to the floor,” says Simon. “If you have to point at somebody on this day who is doing the dirty work of someone who is keeping this shutdown going, it’s the Senate leader who won’t allow a vote.”
Taking on a second job
With no end in sight, government workers are starting to mull their options. In Martinez, Calif., one worker at the Federal Aviation Administration has considered the feasibility of taking on a second job, or quitting altogether. She requested anonymity for fear that speaking out could impact her job status.
She worries about burnout from working every day of the week and taking on extra jobs after working full time with no pay for the FAA. She would quit, she says, but with so much experience coupled with her age (she is over 50) she worries she wouldn’t be able to find another job that will pay her current salary at the start. Unemployment, she notes, isn’t an option for her because she is still technically working.
“To be honest, I have never been in this dire position before,” she says. In addition to regular expenses – mortgage, gas for commuting, utilities – she says she can’t afford to make needed repairs to her heater and roof. She made a temporary patch with leftover shingles, and to keep the cold away she opted for a space heater instead.
She is starting to consider selling her collectible autograph items and other possessions, “if it comes down to that.”
“Before I was only worried about keeping up with the rent,” she says. “Now this is the first time I have owned a house! I would hate to lose that,” she added.
And she isn’t alone: Many federal workers have turned to selling valuables in order to pay their bills.
“They are all doing their jobs without pay,” she says of federal workers. “Yet the people who orchestrated this shutdown are getting paid for not doing their job.”
Kristin Myers is a reporter at Yahoo Finance. Follow her on Twitter.