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Shutdown forces federal workers to consider career changes just to make ends meet

They say this could result in a faster 'brain drain' from the government.

Union workers demonstrate against the government shutdown on January 10, 2019, in Washington, DC. - US President Donald Trump headed Thursday to the US-Mexico border to push his demand for a wall, a day after he walked out of negotiations with Democrats in a political crisis paralyzing the government. (Photo by Nicholas Kamm / AFP)        (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)
Union workers demonstrate against the government shutdown on January 10, 2019, in Washington, DC. - US President Donald Trump headed Thursday to the US-Mexico border to push his demand for a wall, a day after he walked out of negotiations with Democrats in a political crisis paralyzing the government. (Photo by Nicholas Kamm / AFP) (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)

Federal workers and contractors are growing increasingly weary with the partial government shutdown as they begin to feel the financial squeeze, leading many to reconsider government work.

Last Friday, many federal workers missed their first paychecks since the shutdown began on December 22 over demands from President Donald Trump that Congress fund a $5 billion wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. On Saturday, the shutdown became the longest in U.S. history, currently stretching into its fourth week, at 26 days.

ThinkProgress spoke with federal workers and contractors who are making tough choices about whether or not to look for other jobs, or stay in the federal government even if they are able to get back to work soon. The employees quoted in this story asked not to be identified by their actual names out of fear of retaliation.

“It has just been a nightmare”

Drew, a federal worker within the Department of Agriculture, said the shutdown is particularly difficult for them as they’re in their 20s and in the beginning of their career. When asked what they’re doing to stay afloat financially, Drew said they’re not going anywhere or doing anything that requires spending money. They have cancelled any unnecessary regular spending.

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“I covered bills for this month but it’s a question of next month of whether I will be able to make it because I do unfortunately live paycheck-to-paycheck and my savings are rather limited,” Drew said. “It’s been terrible for my economic situation. It’s been terrible for my personal life. It has just been a nightmare.” 

A 2017 CareerBuilder report that polled 2,000 managers and more than 3,000 full-time employees found that 78 percent of full-time workers said they lived paycheck to paycheck. Drew added that it’s particularly tough that they can’t help cover expenses for their group house, which affects everyone else they live with.

“We have to be careful and not spend money, or make trips, or eat out, or go to movies as much, but I have some coworkers who are a lot more worried.”

Anne, a contractor who works with the Bureau of Lands Management, has started filing for unemployment. Contractors did not receive backpay during the 2013 shutdown and it isn’t expected that they will receive backpay after this one, unlike federal workers. Even the process of filing for unemployment reminded her that she isn’t considered as affected by the shutdown as federal workers. One of the questions she had to answer was whether she was a federal employee affected by the shutdown, but since she’s a contractor she was told to answer that she had been laid off due to lack of work.

“We have to be careful and not spend money, or make trips, or eat out, or go to movies as much, but I have some coworkers who are a lot more worried. They have kids, and in some cases supporting their entire family,” she said. “We have some savings, enough to cover me for probably a month, but if not, I’ll join up with some of my other coworkers and start looking for another job, which sucks but I am not there yet.”

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Drew and Lee, a federal worker at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, said that they believe the shutdown may result in a wave of federal workers leaving their government jobs.

“I think most workers on the federal level think if we stick around long enough [President Trump] will be out of office and this whole thing will blow over and I am seriously reconsidering that approach,” Drew said. “I think everyone I know has been trying to stay there to be a force of good or consistency in whatever agency they’re working for and a month-long period to reconsider what you’re doing with your life and your place in the federal government is more than enough to make some people feel like they want to seriously change their mind.”

Drew said they think a lot of people who have worked for the government for a decade or longer will either leave through early retirement or by changing jobs. They added that a lot of people have already started looking for new jobs, which means the government could lose considerable talent and consistency in agencies.

Lee said the administration has been “hostile” to government workers since it began.

“There’s already a Baby Boomer brain drain and retirements in federal government due to Clinton and Bush administration hiring freezes,” Lee said. “This will just expedite that.”

Workers blame Trump and Republicans

Most of the federal workers and contractors who spoke with ThinkProgress said they put at least some of the blame on Trump, as well as Republican members of Congress. A majority of Americans share their views. According to a CNN poll conducted by SSRS, a market and survey research firm, 55 percent of people surveyed said Trump is more to blame for the shutdown than Congressional Democrats. President Trump’s approval rating has also dipped five points since last month.

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“I’d put the blame 90 percent on Trump because his leadership is not good,” Anne said. “He’s not playing the game well. He’s drawing a line in the sand and he is not willing to cross it. He’s not even negotiating at this point. That’s what politics is about it’s about negotiation and he’s not doing that. He’s failing.”

Lee, a federal worker at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, is worried that the media coverage has been centered only on House Democrats and the president.

“There’s an entire other legislative body. People should be pressuring [Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY)] to at least let the Senate vote up or down,” Lee said.

Drew said the blame should be shared by President Trump and Republicans in Congress. 

“It has blown itself up into this one issue he has overwhelming support on and he is trying to stay behind it and it’s just not working.”

“This could have been avoided by the Congress that was leaving and they could have negotiated something earlier on when they had a full Republican house and Senate. Something could have gone through,” they said. “I assign blame for wall funding and wall funding was a tactic used by Trump to explain a very complicated issue. It has blown itself up into this one issue he has overwhelming support on and he is trying to stay behind it and it’s just not working.”

Most of the workers and contractors who spoke to ThinkProgress said they felt their communities were aware of how the shutdown affected workers, but when Anne visited family in New York for the holidays, she said they didn’t seem aware that she wouldn’t get paid.

“They were like, ‘oh yeah you’re going to get paid right?’ So I had to explain that a lot. Like, ‘no I’m not getting backpay,'” she said.

Her grandfather, who is conservative, appeared to feel differently about the shutdown once he knew how it would affect her, she said.

“He was like, ‘Oh who cares, shut it down.’ But when I explained to him how I was affected, he got kind of quiet and didn’t say anything. By the time we had to say goodbye, he said, ‘I hope you get back to work soon.’ So I think the awareness is not great, but it’s definitely growing.”

Lee said a conservative family member “changed his mind about the Republican Party” after the 2013 shutdown.

Workers say they are also exasperated that they are unable to continue projects that would benefit Americans, particularly marginalized groups. Anne noted that the Bureau of Land Management has recreational land that they are unable to keep safe and clean. Migration corridors, which maintain wildlife populations, for instance, are going to be delayed. Drew said that the USDA is unable to follow up with organizations on grant work, while Lee expressed concern about how people served by HUD will be affected by the shutdown.

“I have fielded a call from resident in HUD’s housing choice voucher program that needed a reasonable accommodation due to her disability,” Lee said. “Her housing authority wasn’t accepting her medical documentation and I needed colleagues in the field to help her file her fair housing complaint and potentially reach out to the housing authority to resolve the issue informally.”

Lee added, “She’s probably homeless right now.”