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Government shutdown 2019

How the shutdown is impacting federal workers

Janet Nguyen Dec 27, 2018
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A view of the U.S. Capitol.
NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images

This post was updated on Dec. 28. 

With the government shutdown likely to continue into next week, federal workers remain unsure as to when their next paycheck will come. 

They include single mothers trying make ends meet; disabled veterans who need surgery; and people who moved their entire families for the job. Many of them are sharing their stories Twitter using the hashtag #ShutdownStories.

Julie Burr, a single mother and an administrative assistant for the Department of Transportation in Kansas City, Missouri, said she’s feeling “panicked” right now.

“I’m just hoping this doesn’t last very long. And the longer it lasts, the harder it’s going to be on myself and many, many others — especially the contracted workers who will not get back pay,” she said.

Contractor Julie Burr said she's feeling "panicked" right now.Contractor Julie Burr said she's been able to take on extra shifts at Barnes & Noble for now.

Contractor Julie Burr said she’s been able to take on extra shifts at Barnes & Noble for now.

As a contractor, Burr said she doesn’t work directly for the federal government and that she’s essentially a third party.

In other words: “If Congress does agree to back pay federal workers, I am not included in that group.”

To get some cash on the side, Burr has taken on extra shifts at her second job with Barnes & Noble.

“Everyone there has been absolutely wonderful in helping me kind of take up the slack a little bit. It is a very big pay cut, of course — it’s about 25 to 30 percent of what I make at my federal job,” she said. “But it will help a little bit. Any little bit helps right now.”

When it all began

The partial federal shutdown started this Saturday after Democrats and President Donald Trump failed to reach a compromise over his demands for a $5 billion border wall.

Ernie Johnson on the job, inspecting a mine site.

Ernie Johnson on the job, inspecting a mine site.

The gridlock blocks money for nine out of 15 Cabinet-level departments and agencies, including the departments of Homeland Security, Transportation and Agriculture. It also means a major disruption for 800,000 federal workers — many of whom have been furloughed.  

That includes Ernie Johnson, a geologist for the Bureau of Land Management in the Interior Department, who said he and his co-workers were optimistic that they wouldn’t get shut down over the holidays.

“Going into it on Friday, leaving work, we were kind of like, well, OK, they’ll come up with a last-minute thing like they’ve done before,” Johnson said. “And they didn’t.”

Johnson said that he’s feeling caught in “the crossfire between the two branches.”   

President Trump continued his feud with Democrats on Thursday morning, tweeting: “Have the Democrats finally realized that we desperately need Border Security and a Wall on the Southern Border.”

Right now, it looks like the shutdown won’t end anytime soon, according to the Associated Press. House members have been reportedly told not to expect any votes this week. While both the House and Senate are back in session on Thursday, few legislators are expected to be around and they’ll need 24 hours’ notice before a vote.

Managing their budgets

Burr said her final paycheck will arrive on Jan. 16. And if the government is still in shutdown during the first two weeks of January, she’ll get no contract pay at all at the end of January.

“That’s going to be a hardship on myself and my family — especially me being a single mom with only the one income, with my income,” she said.

She has a 14-year-old son who’s noticing how worried she is.

“He’s helping me, though, in cutting back on certain things and budgeting certain things. We’re giving up on little things like Netflix and some subscriptions that we usually have, but we’re going to put those aside for now,” she said.

Some people on Twitter have criticized federal workers who are sharing their anxiety, arguing that they should have been better at budgeting their money. Johnson said he tries to keep things budgeted out three to six months in advance, but “that’s not the issue.”  

“The issue is Congress and the executive branch not coming to a conclusion, not whether or not I plan to have an extra $4,000 handy to pay a bill. Focus on the budget and not on the fact that not all of us are independently wealthy,” he said.

A plea for compromise

Even when the shutdown ends, the troubles for federal workers won’t be over. Each passing day matters.

“My backlog at work is going to start getting bigger and bigger,” said Johnson, who in his role at the BLM receives requests to verify the permits of oil and gas companies who want to do drilling or exploration.

Both Johnson and Burr said they want Congress and President Trump to find a compromise — quickly.

“A message I would send to Congress and President Trump is please just try to work together,” Burr said. “I know everybody has their side of the aisle that they want to sit on. But there are a lot of people being affected by this and it really needs to be resolved as soon as possible so that families like mine and others just don’t have those hardships.” 

Audio produced by Sean McHenry.

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