Tuesday marked two weeks exactly since the government shut down after Congress failed to reach an agreement on a temporary funding extension. Since then, the debate has become wrapped up over the fight to raise the debt ceiling, and it remains unclear how and when both crises will be resolved. But during those two weeks of a shut down government, 350,000 federal workers remain furloughed without pay while many others who were deemed essential to national safety and other operations have had to report to work without getting a paycheck. That time has taken a toll on workers’ finances, stress levels, and the work they should be doing.
Michael Arendt, who operates a dam at a navigational site for the Army Corps of Engineers, was deemed both essential and exempt and had to go to work without pay after the government shut down. He will get a paycheck on Wednesday or Thursday and “that will be the last check,” he said. He called his situation and that of his coworkers — having to go to work without being paid — “indentured servitude.” He’s already struggling to figure out how he will pay all of his bills. “I’m having to rearrange things to make it fit,” he said.
While he will be paid for his working hours once the government is open, he won’t be paid for any time he takes off. “One direct effect was that I had to take some leave time off,” he said, but right now the government is classifying any time off — sick days or other annual leave time — as furlough days that won’t be paid back. That’s because the current interpretation of the Anti-Deficiency Act is that government agencies can’t spend any money that they haven’t already gotten permission for, including, apparently, paid leave. “If we’re going to make this sacrifice for the government, the very least they could do is allow us to take our sick time and leave time and pay us,” he said.
His solution: simply code the time off so that it is deferred until after the government is re-opened. “As long as this goes on, more people will be taking some of their time off, because life doesn’t stop,” he pointed out.
Dennis Demay, who works as a union representative in the Department of Labor and is also currently furloughed in the shutdown, also argued that those who are being forced to go to work without pay right now are having a very difficult time. “People still have to pay for childcare, the expenses of getting to work such as mass transit, parking,” he said. “They are incurring the cost that they would at any other time” but aren’t getting paid.
For his part, he got “about half a paycheck” over the weekend. While he has some money put away to fall back on, he has also filed for unemployment “because you just don’t know.” And he struggles to fill his time. He and other coworkers volunteered at a local food bank packing backpacks for school kids and at a Boys and Girls Club installing a piece of a playground. “We’re trying to be constructive with our time,” he said. “But it does kind of wear on you.”
He says he hears “every day” from the members his union represents about their challenges in the shutdown. “People are already starting to make what I would call tough choices,” he said. Without the next paycheck, “you get the almost impossible choices.” The emotional toll is also real. “It’s to the point where morale is no longer low because there is no morale.”
Jenny Brown, a tax examiner at the Internal Revenue Service and president of her NTEU union chapter, is waiting on a paycheck that will only be for 40 hours, which has been delayed because there aren’t enough employees to get the checks out on time. “I won’t get another check until the government’s running again, if then,” she said. That has meant a reevaluation of her family’s expenses. “My husband and I sat down and went over it this morning,” she said. “Come November 1, how are we going to pay for this, how are we going to pay for that.” They will have to make really tough decisions if the shutdown goes into November. “At that point I would imagine I’m going to be looking at not being able to make my house payment,” she said.
The loss of full paychecks will hit her and her colleagues hard. “Most of just haven’t really had much of a savings account since the pay freezes and furlough days” that resulted from sequestration, she said. “It’s put people in the position that going without one full paycheck is making all the difference in the world.” Her union put on a free hockey event recently. At the event, one member told her their family would be going to food banks this week. Another said they are “afraid to spend a dime” because they don’t know when more money will come in. A shutdown that lasts into November will be incredibly trying. “I imagine people will not be able to make rent payments, might have to move in with family members at that point,” she said. Food banks and other charities are already stretched from the increased demand. “I can’t imagine what a nightmare that would be.”
The work stoppage doesn’t just mean the loss of a paycheck, however. For many federal workers it means halting critical work. Lee Stone, a human factors researcher at NASA’s Ames Research Center who focuses on the effects of space flight on hand-eye coordination, was furloughed two weeks ago just like 97 percent of NASA employees and told he couldn’t do anything related to his work. That has thrown a wrench into many different projects, including some of his. “I had preparations planned for an upcoming experiment on the Ames 20-g centrifuge looking at hand-eye coordination at peak g levels and vibration levels,” he said. The research would be important for a new spacecraft in development as well as commercial flights. But all of the preparation, testing, and checks have been postponed, work that will have to be done all over again when the experiment is rescheduled. Making matters more complicated is that the centrifuge is scheduled for other work in the future, “so I might miss my opportunity to use it,” he said.
The shutdown has snarled other plans. An international conference on artificial gravity that Stone was planning to attend was scheduled last week at the research center. Experts from around the world as well as from NASA, academia, and foreign space agencies were scheduled to come. The shutdown canceled it. “It’s the lost opportunities,” he said. “Who knows how long it will be before we can schedule something of that nature.” All of the preparation for that was also lost.
These sorts of interruptions are happening for many different scientific projects, at NASA and other agencies. “It’s very disruptive and wasteful and pointless because obviously this work needs to get done,” he said. “It’s just going to waste all the money and preparation and cause delays in not only providing answers to questions we’re asking but also rescheduling the activities we were planning.”
Just like other federal workers, his most recent paycheck was just 60 percent of what it normally is and the next in less than two weeks won’t have any money in it. “I won’t be paid for 28 days,” he said. He is a senior scientist who has been with NASA for 28 years and is not going to feel an immediate financial impact. But that doesn’t mean his family is immune to the stress it’s causing. As a single father, his children “are a little nervous that nobody is at work in their house,” he said. “My daughter was asking whether we’ll get backpay. I can see they’re listening to the news and worried.”
Rudy D’Alessandro, who has worked for the Interior Department for 21 years and has been in the National Parks department for 11 working currently in the Office of International Affairs, also worries about the impact the shutdown will have on his work. “When I’m out one day, 20 to 30, sometimes even 50, emails will pile up,” he said. “When I’ve taken vacation literally hundreds of emails are there.” That will take him “at least a week to, like an archeologist, dig through all of this email” when he returns. “It’s very daunting.”
Worse, perhaps, is the risk of ruining important relationships with international colleagues. Several groups who were scheduled to visit during the past two weeks weren’t able to change their travel plans, including a delegation from Shanghai. He’s met informally with those who are in town to have lunch, but while they come to see the parks, they can’t visit any of them while the government is shut down. “It may kill your relationships with your colleagues,” he warned.
And he is also feeling the personal toll. The next paycheck is due on the 29th, and if it has zero dollars in it, that will make paying rent and utilities very challenging. He’s started reevaluating all of his purchases and is even reconsidering his plans to visit his wife’s family. He and his wife are taking up any offers from friends for free meals. Meanwhile, he is supporting his son who is in college by paying the rent on his apartment. “I can’t say, ‘Sorry son, I can’t do this,’” he said. “I’ve got to find a way to pay for that.”