What it’s like to be a government worker not getting paid
As the partial government shutdown continues, hundreds of thousands of federal employees are feeling the effects. Now a month long, it’s the longest-running government shutdown in U.S. history and there are currently 800,000 government employees without an income (approximately 420,000 working without pay and approximately 380,000 on furlough, according to the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee) plus thousands more contractors hired by the federal government. And many are feeling an increasing financial strain with every shutdown day that passes.
A struggle to pay for essentials
President Donald Trump stated during a news conference that the shutdown has “a higher purpose than next week’s pay,” but for workers living paycheck to paycheck, that may seem far from the truth. On social media, people have used the hashtag #ShutdownStories to describe the impacts of $0 paychecks, from potentially losing their homes to not being able to afford medications for their families. Mahasin Mohamed, a contracted employee who works security at the National Air and Space Museum told Mic.com that she recently bought a home and is now concerned about paying her mortgage and other essential bills. “It affects me so bad[ly],” she said, adding, “I don’t know if it’s going to affect my credit. I have a bill for electric, I have a bill for gas, I have my phone.”
“Some people are not buying food,” said a spokesperson for 32BJ-SEIU, a union representing contract workers. “I know of a member who has skipped meals so she can make sure her kids get adequate food, especially because she has a 2-month-old who was born prematurely and requires expensive formula. People are trying to make decisions about which bills to pay, which ones to skip; they are talking to their landlords trying to figure out what’s going to happen if they have to miss a payment.”
And while, as NPR reported, most federal employees maintain health insurance through the shutdown (the premiums for which will come out of their paychecks when the government reopens), contract workers who buy their own coverage may not. And beyond medical insurance, Ryan Baugh, a furloughed Department of Homeland Security (DHS) employee and a steward for the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) union said for “other kinds of insurance, such as vision or dental, it looks like we might have to start manually paying that to keep it up.”
The search for new sources of income
Without their government pay, furloughed workers are looking for other ways to bring in money, like driving Uber and Lyft cars or taking on other part-time work. And according to Politico, nearly 9,000 federal employees have applied for unemployment benefits. Others still are taking out loans to cover their expenses.
But not everyone can go these routes. The employees deemed “essential” who are working without pay — like TSA agents and corrections officers —don’t have as much flexibility (if any) to take second jobs; and even those on furlough are running into frustrating roadblocks. “I can’t ‘get another job’ during the shutdown—my agency requires pre-approval to do other work,” one person wrote on Twitter. Indeed, in an undated post sharing information for furloughed workers, the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association stated, “You are still an employee of the federal government, therefore...rules regarding outside employment continue to apply when you are furloughed.”
And, according to New Hampshire Public Radio (NHPR), people still working “essential” jobs without pay aren’t eligible for unemployment benefits — and those who are will have to pay them back if they receive back pay.
Concerns about back pay
“Historically, federal employees like myself and my direct colleagues would get back pay [when the government reopens], but that’s not guaranteed,” Baugh said. “It takes a proactive act on the part of Congress and signed by the White House.” Though President Trump signed legislation to guarantee back pay for federal employees with no concrete end to the shutdown in sight, those employees may have to go without income for quite some time before that happens. “I know on some level it can’t go on forever, but it feels like it could go on forever,” Baugh said. “I don’t know what the scale of how long it will take is. Are we talking days; are we talking weeks; are we talking months?”
And for contract workers, the notion of getting paid wages missed during the shutdown is far less assured. As the 32BJ-SEIU spokesperson pointed out, contractors historically have not received back pay in government shutdowns — though some legislators are working to change that this time around. On January 10, Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) introduced a bill to guarantee back-pay to “low-wage federally contracted retail, food, custodial and security service workers who are furloughed during the shutdown,” according to a press release from Rep. Norton’s office.
As the shutdown continues, some federal workers continue to struggle, and not just financially. “There’s also a huge emotional toll, whether you’re working without pay or you’re considered nonessential,” Baugh said. “Staring down the calendar and just not knowing when it’s going to be over, that’s a horrible feeling. Morale is low; people are ready to go back to work...without the distraction of [not] knowing how they’re going to pay for dinner for their children or even for themselves. … This is not how you treat employees; this is not how you treat people; this is not how you should treat public servants.”