I’m One Of The 800,000 Federal Workers Struggling Through The Government Shutdown

January 9, 2019  |  

Young african woman sitting at workplace

Source: valentinrussanov / Getty

Most people like to head into the new year with a sense of certainty about their professional future. Unfortunately, this year, I didn’t have that luxury. I’m among the 800,000 federal workers hit by the latest government shutdown and I can tell you that was not a good way to kick off 2019.

In 2018, it was hard to remember a time when the government wasn’t at risk of being shut down. It happened three times last year alone, and for many of us, it began to feel like our lives were being used as bargaining chips. We have seen that the people begging for our votes in November are more than comfortable leaving us without a means of income in December. For a federal worker, like myself and many others, this shutdown has complicated our lives at the worst possible time.

January is usually a time when people recover financially from the holidays. As people spend on family travel, entertaining, eating out, and presents, it’s a costly time of year and those top-of-the-year checks provide much-needed relief. With a government shutdown currently in place, a lot of federal workers are wondering how we’re going to make ends meet until Congress and The White House can reach an agreement on funding for a border wall.

The first thing that happened to me once the shutdown was declared was that my Christmas vacation got cut short before I ever left for the holiday. This year my husband and I meticulously budgeted our paid leave hours to make sure that we had enough time for our honeymoon, Thanksgiving with my parents, and Christmas with his. Originally, we had planned to spend the entire week of Christmas with his folks in order to fully enjoy the holiday, but we decided to come home early to work a few extra days once it looked more likely that a government shutdown would happen. We’re each fortunate enough to work for an office that was cleared to work for another week after the shutdown because our department is already fully funded. It wasn’t long before that proved to be the last piece of good news regarding our dubious circumstances.

When I returned to work last week, the tone around the office was tense and hurried as we all applied ourselves to various administrative tasks before we had to stop working. As everyone left the office on New Year’s Eve, we bid each other farewell, unsure of when we would be back. Underneath the well wishes was the unspoken concern about how long it would be before we would be able to earn an income again. It made things uneasy for everyone. I, personally, wasn’t confident that the issue would be resolved before the start of the year and now I’m mentally preparing myself for the possibility that this shutdown could stretch into another week. Financially, that calls for some heavy duty budgeting as my husband and I prepare for the possibility of needing to pay two months of rent out of one month of salary.

Since the shutdown began over the holidays, the full reality of it didn’t hit many workers immediately. But when the Office of Personnel Management posted a template letter to help federal workers negotiate reduced or delayed payments, we know everything was really about to hit the fan. It told me that the government is expecting the shutdown to last long enough that it will affect people’s ability to pay their bills on time this month (and possibly the next). That’s a major problem for anyone living in and around the nation’s capital, which is one of the most expensive areas to live, like I do.

Many people in this area prefer to work for the federal government, either directly or through a contract position, because that work offers better pay, better benefits, and overall better job security (usually). Times like this shake that confidence for a lot of us. In the past year, the previous shutdowns haven’t lasted long, so a lot of people forgot how severe this move actually is. When a shutdown only lasts for a day or two, many federal employees (contractors included) can make up the hours they missed throughout a pay period and the setback almost feels like a speed bump. This time, however, is very different because there’s no clear end in sight.

The other unforeseen consequence of the shutdown has been how its affected fringe businesses, including the D.C. Superior Court. Last week, for example, my office building felt a bit like a ghost town as various lunch spots and coffee shops remained closed because they wouldn’t have enough customers to remain open until everyone is back to work. That means that these businesses and their employees are also losing money during the government shutdown because they rely on federal employees to patronize their businesses. They may be getting hit even harder than us because they don’t earn as much as many of their clients, so their resources are even more limited than ours. That’s not something that occurred to me or my coworkers until we saw the darkened vendor windows in our area as we passed by.

This shutdown has given federal employees a lot of time to think about what led us here. The fact of the matter is that our livelihood is being held for ransom because the president wants $5 billion for an ineffective border wall. A wall that he promised his base Mexico would pay for. Most reasonable people knew that was utter BS from the jump, and now we’re all having to pay the price. Knowing that money could be better spent on cleaning up Flint’s water, ensuring veterans get their benefits, or providing universal health care makes the situation all the more upsetting.

The public is having mixed reactions to the shutdown as some people don’t see what the big deal is. Many of Donald Trump’s supporters are fine with this partial government shutdown because it hasn’t had a direct effect on them, and they’re under the assumption that everyone will eventually get back pay. I can tell you for certain that’s not true. Federal employees working directly for the federal government and workers deemed as essential will get paid back for this time. Employees that are working without pay during the duration of this shutdown will make that money back (but they won’t get it immediately). Contractors and anyone who bills hourly are losing money. If these individuals aren’t working any billable hours, they won’t get paid for the time they lost, ever.

Now that the Democrats have control of the House of Representatives, I’m hoping some progress can be made. I’m not going to get my hopes way up just yet, though. In the meantime, I’m fortunate enough to have a second job that can help supplement my earnings and keep us afloat. I know that not everyone has that option, and I can only pray that this shutdown ends before it hits everyone harder than we can afford.

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