Monica Lewis was one of many furloughed federal workers standing in line for the food pantry this week. Since the federal government shut down over a month ago, she has been feeling disoriented and guilty, as she’s used to being on the other side of the line, handing out food.
“Am I infringing upon the homeless?” she asked Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) at a town hall Thursday evening.
The longest-ever government shutdown in U.S. history has this single mother of one in complete distress. She has severe arthritis and needs stem cell therapy to walk. But she’s likely delaying her next treatment; she can’t afford to pay the insurance deductible because the shutdown forced her to miss two paychecks. She’s not normally a depressed person, but these days it’s hard not to be when she’s worried about paying the bills, from rent to her son’s private school tuition. And there’s no telling when the government will reopen.
What’s more, her sense of self has been shaken. She’s a public servant but legally can’t serve and can’t work.
“I’m a giver — if I’m not giving, who else is?” she later told ThinkProgress.
It’s hard to fully grasp the toll this partial shutdown is taking on the country. For one, it’s of unprecedented length. But its effects are immediate and sometimes dire depending on other life circumstances like income or health.
About 800,000 federal employees are furloughed or working without pay, and the tens of thousands of government contractors who can’t work likely won’t receive back pay. While government workers still have health insurance right now, missed paychecks make paying co-payments and deductibles impossible. A simple scroll through GoFundMe says as much. “We have a daughter that has had three surgeries to include open heart surgery. Medical bills are piling up. All we ask is for a little help!” one post reads.
Soon, however, federal employees will be billed directly for some benefits and if they don’t pay, they will lose coverage. After three missed paychecks, workers will have to pay for dental, vision, and long-term care, according to recent federal guidance.
To simply not work, however, is enough to debilitate one’s health. For Kristin Stadum, being out of work for over a month has exacerbated her multiple sclerosis. “Having a routine helps me a lot just because it helps manage the symptoms,” she said.
“It is integral to the health and well-being of individuals to support themselves and their families, to the extent possible, through work,” the former Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) secretary wrote last year in an op-ed titled “The Trump administration believes in the dignity of work.” The Republican party, more broadly, has used this idea — the dignity of work — to defend work requirements in public assistance programs. Now, the dignity of work takes a back seat to the president’s proposed border wall.
“Work is my coping mechanism,” furloughed worker, Sam Hunley, told ThinkProgress, by phone.
The government shutdown triggered Hunley’s anxiety, forcing him to see a therapist on Tuesday for the first time in years. Hunley was first diagnosed with a generalized anxiety disorder in graduate school. This is the longest period of time Hunley, who is a presidential management fellow living in Washington, D.C., has not had some kind of work structure in nearly nine years.
“Not having a regular schedule, not contributing — it really hits at your identity when your identity is someone who is productive,” he added.
Jill Aksamit, an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission statistician who first learned she was furloughed the day after Christmas, also finds herself lost these days. Work is a huge part of her identity.
“I’m a servant leader so I really want to be helping other people, that’s why I became a federal employee,” Aksamit told ThinkProgress by phone.
She’s rethinking staying at her federal job, a job she just started six months ago and uprooted her life in Nebraska for. It’s been an anxiety-ridden month, learning her employer doesn’t consider her essential and knowing that while she still has insurance, she can’t make any changes to her plan to cover her and her partner.
“I’m worried. My husband and I have had surgeries in the past without a lot of notice… I’ve seen people be bankrupted medically,” she said. “Medical emergencies — it’s scary enough without other factors.”
“The emotional stress is overwhelming,” said Bony King-Taylor, a psychologist in D.C. Many of her clients are federal workers and so she’s hearing firsthand how the shutdown is making daily tasks, like paying for groceries or child care, excruciating.
“Going along in your life as a mid-level government employee, feeling like you have lifetime employment — which the majority of government jobs can be if everything works out right — and then suddenly, it’s pulled out from underneath you,” said King-Taylor. Moreover, they’re relying on an unreliable president to pay them back.
But King-Taylor won’t get back pay. Some clients — the ones who haven’t said they’ll return when the government reopens — have asked to pay her in IOUs. She’s agreed to it because they need help coping, but it puts her in a precarious situation as her practice is her only source of income.