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Government shutdown 2019

What happens when losing a paycheck becomes a regular thing

Sean McHenry Jan 16, 2019
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Retired government contractor Janet Martin endured many government shutdowns during her career, and those experiences still affect how she lives her life.
Robyn Edgar/Marketplace

My Economy tells the story of the new economic normal through the eyes of people trying to make it, because we know the only numbers that really matter are the ones in your economy.


There are more than 4 million estimated contractors who work for the government, their jobs ranging from computer programming to research. But unlike government employees, many contractors put out of work during a government shutdown will not receive back pay. Janet Martin is a retired computer programmer who worked as a government contractor for several decades. In the course of her career, she weathered many shutdowns, and it changed the way she thinks about money.

I’m Janet Martin, and I’m a retired software engineer; used to work in government contracting. I started somewhere in the late ’80s, so it was about 25 years or so. Worked for many, many different government contracting firms. Little ones, big ones, all across the spectrum.

The first shutdown I went through was the Newt Gingrich shutdown, which was, before this one, the longest one ever. And I was very lucky. It was early on in my career, so I was not contributing a majority of income to the household. My husband had a good job at the time. It was just very stressful because I was home. I knew stuff was piling up. All I remember is I ended up cleaning my house. With all of my nervous energy, I do remember running around the house cleaning everything.

Some of the shutdowns, we were very lucky. They were just like, you know, shuts down on Friday, opens back up by Monday. But some of them went on for a little while.

Looking back on it, I realized that after that very first long shutdown that I was involved in, we always made sure we lived inside our paychecks. So now we drive our cars till they literally fall apart in the driveway. We don’t go on elaborate vacations. You know, we bought a house way back when, thinking eventually we would flip it for a bigger house. We’ve never done that. And it even affects me now. Even though I’m retired, I still kind of keep the expenses down as much as I can. We don’t go out and go crazy.

As I was listening to all of this shutdown information, I realized, that’s part of the decisions I’ve made over the years, having this happen over and over and over again. You don’t live at the level that maybe your paycheck would imply you could live because you know that that paycheck is not, it may not be secure.

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