Fed em­ploy­ees feel fi­nan­cial pinch with shut­down

Sunday Star - - BUSINESS & CLASSIFIEDS - By CLAU­DIA LAUER and MICHAEL KUNZELMAN Kunzelman re­ported from Sil­ver Spring. As­so­ci­ated Press re­porters Philip Marcelo in Water­town, Mass., and Ben Fin­ley in Nor­folk, Va., con­trib­uted to this re­port.

PHILADEL­PHIA (AP) — As the gov­ern­ment’s par­tial shut­down pushed to­ward a third week, hun­dreds of thou­sands of fed­eral work­ers are feel­ing the fi­nan­cial pinch.

They’re call­ing mort­gage com­pa­nies, hop­ing for a break, and weigh­ing the risks of let­ting other bills go un­paid. They’re re­heat­ing left­overs and turn­ing down the ther­mo­stat to save a few bucks. They’re look­ing into ap­ply­ing for loans or un­em­ploy­ment in­sur­ance.

Their wor­ries go be­yond house­hold bud­gets. Some are stressed about the un­fin­ished work pil­ing up in their ab­sence while Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump and Congress clash over a plan for re­open­ing the gov­ern­ment. For many fur­loughed fed­eral em­ploy­ees, the worst part is the uncer­tainty over how long the shut­down will last. A look at some of their wor­ries:

SAV­ING RE­CEIPTS This is Nora Brooks’ fa­vorite time of the year. Not be­cause of the hol­i­days, but be­cause of her job. The 61-year-old Philadel­phia na­tive is a cus­tomer ser­vice rep­re­sen­ta­tive for the In­ter­nal Rev­enue Ser­vice. She loves help­ing tax­pay­ers nav­i­gate the IRS, in­clud­ing get­ting their re­funds.

“I get to be the per­son that ex­plains to you what you have to do to make it bet­ter,” Brooks said.

At 11:30 p.m. Dec. 21, Brooks en­tered into the sys­tem one last con­cern from a tax­payer whose re­fund had been held up. “I didn’t want the shut­down to fur­ther de­lay this tax­payer I made a com­mit­ment to,” she said.

For the past 13 days, she’s been fur­loughed, wor­ry­ing about whether she’ll need to seek a sec­ond job. The agency re­quires pre-ap­proval to avoid con­flicts of in­ter­est, but there’s no one in the of­fice to sign off.

She stayed up un­til 3 a.m. Wed­nes­day fig­ur­ing out which bills needed to be paid and which could wait. The agency gave em­ploy­ees a let­ter ex­plain­ing the fur­lough to cred­i­tors, but “it means ab­so­lutely noth­ing to them,” she said.

So Brooks’ re­cent pur­chases sit in bags, re­ceipts on top, in case she needs money for the elec­tric bill. The ther­mo­stat is turned down; she dons a hoodie in­side. She spent her health sav­ings ac­count in­stead of let­ting it carry over be­cause the re­im­burse­ment could pay bills.

“You try not to freak out, but I don’t have any con­trol over what’s go­ing to hap­pen next month. I’m sec­ond guess­ing. Should I have had a whole nest egg? Well, no, my pay doesn’t al­low for that,” she said.

RAID­ING THE FREEZER

Re­becca Ma­clean, a hous­ing pro­gram spe­cial­ist for the De­part­ment of Hous­ing and Ur­ban De­vel­op­ment in Pitts­burgh, re­ceived her last pre-shut­down pay­check over the week­end. She and her hus­band used it to make their monthly mort­gage pay­ment and cover some Christ­mas ex­penses for their three chil­dren.

Ma­clean, 41, said her fam­ily is try­ing to cut back on ex­penses. They stayed home for a movie night in­stead of go­ing to a the­ater. In­stead of take­out din­ners, they eat left­overs and call it the “Freezer Bak­ing Chal­lenge.”

The fam­ily’s fi­nan­cial out­look isn’t dire yet — her hus­band, Dan Thomp­son, owns a knife-mak­ing busi­ness and works as an elected con­sta­ble. But they re­cently sat down to pri­or­i­tize which bills must be paid and which can be late without ding­ing their credit.

“We’re fine for now,” she said. “Miss­ing two pay­checks in Jan­uary might be a lit­tle hairy.”

Ma­clean, a lo­cal shop stew­ard for the Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of Gov­ern­ment Em­ploy­ees union, said she’s frus­trated that fed­eral em­ploy­ees are be­ing used “as a bar­gain­ing chip.”

“I don’t know why they want to use 800,000 gov­ern­ment em­ploy­ees to make a point,” she said.

FILL­ING THE DOWN­TIME

In a cof­fee shop of­fer­ing free drinks to fur­loughed work­ers, Amanda Wag­ner en­joyed a perk of the down­time from the shut­down: She spent a leisurely Thurs­day morn­ing as­sem­bling a dig­i­tal photo al­bum of her two young chil­dren.

Wag­ner, 37, and 36-yearold hus­band Nel­son are both fed­eral em­ploy­ees. She’s a branch chief for the Se­cu­ri­ties and Ex­change Com­mis­sion in Wash­ing­ton. He works for the Jus­tice De­part­ment. Nei­ther will draw a pay­check un­til the gov­ern­ment re­opens.

“The uncer­tainty is scary,” she said.

For now, Wag­ner isn’t wor­ried about cov­er­ing their big­gest monthly ex­penses: the mort­gage on their Takoma Park, Mary­land, home; child care for their two kids; and credit card bills. Her chil­dren’s day­care cen­ters are al­low­ing par­ents to de­fer pay­ments dur­ing the shut­down.

She knows some col­leagues face tougher choices, such as whether to bor­row money from fam­ily.

“Frankly, I think it’s go­ing to af­fect us if it lasts much longer. Then I think we will have some cash-flow is­sues,” she said.

A sil­ver lin­ing: The fam­ily is catch­ing up on house­hold projects. They built a bed for their daugh­ter, who just grew out of her crib.

LIV­ING PAY­CHECK TO PAY­CHECK

Sin­gle par­ent Leisyka Parrott, a Bureau of Land Man­age­ment em­ployee in Ar­cata, Cal­i­for­nia, waited un­til the week­end be­fore Christ­mas to shop for her 13-yearold son. Her fur­lough had a sober­ing ef­fect on their hol­i­day cel­e­bra­tion.

“I def­i­nitely went re­ally light on it this year,” Parrott said. “I ex­plained to my son that our fi­nan­cial fu­ture is un­cer­tain.”

Parrott, 47, a union stew­ard for the Na­tional Fed­er­a­tion of Fed­eral Em­ploy­ees, isn’t tak­ing it for granted that she and other fur­loughed work­ers will get back pay, as they did af­ter pre­vi­ous gov­ern­ment shut­downs.

“It’s scar y,” she said. “I do live pay­check to pay­check.”

Gas isn’t cheap, so Parrott stays home as much as she can. With rent and car pay­ments, she doesn’t have much wig­gle room in her fam­ily bud­get.

“I al­ready live pretty fru­gally,” she said.

She’s re­luc­tant to bor­row money from a fed­eral em­ployee credit union but says she might ex­plore that if the shut­down ex­tends into next week.

STILL GO­ING TO WORK

Mike Gayza­gian, a Trans­porta­tion Se­cu­rity Ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cer at Bos­ton’s Lo­gan Air­port, got his last pre-shut­down pay­check last week and con­tin­ues to re­port to work, as all TSA of­fi­cers have since the gov­ern­ment closed.

The 49-year-old said wor­ry­ing about fi­nances has made it dif­fi­cult to con­cen­trate on keep­ing air­ports safe.

“It’s a bizarre sit­u­a­tion to be in, where you know you have go to work but you’re not get­ting paid,” said Gayza­gian, who has worked for the TSA for more than a decade and re­cently be­came act­ing pres­i­dent of Lo­cal 2617 of the Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of Gov­ern­ment Em­ploy­ees, which rep­re­sents TSA work­ers in Mas­sachusetts, New Hamp­shire and Maine.

The Water­town, Mas­sachusetts, res­i­dent says he and his wife, who works for a bank, have Jan­uary’s rent cov­ered, but they’ve al­ready started look­ing to de­fer other bills on their two-bed­room apart­ment.

“As a fed­eral em­ployee, we’re not sup­posed to be po­lit­i­cal,” Gayza­gian said. “This is not our fight, but we’re be­ing used as pawns.”

He’s also con­cerned about the ef­fect fre­quent shut­downs could have on gov­ern­ment ser­vice.

“Peo­ple can’t work in an in­dus­try that’s at risk of shut­ting down once or twice a year,” he said.

WOR­RY­ING OVER CON­TRAC­TOR PAY

Fed­eral con­trac­tor Chris Erick­son says he’ll run out of va­ca­tion days if the shut­down con­tin­ues.

The fa­ther of three from Salt Lake City will then crack into his sav­ings, and he’ll likely post­pone a 14th wed­ding an­niver­sary trip with his wife to a cabin.

Erick­son said he likely won’t get the chance for re­im­burse­ment for the lost days be­cause he’s a con­trac­tor.

“It feels like con­trac­tors are for­got­ten in the mix,” he said. “Congress is­sues back pay for the gov­ern­ment em­ploy­ees, and long-term con­trac­tors are ig­nored.”

Erick­son, 36, could prob­a­bly find an­other job, but the soft­ware en­gi­neer says he be­lieves in the work he does for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Ser­vice: de­sign­ing soft­ware to help gov­ern­ments and pri­vate com­pa­nies work to­gether to bet­ter pro­tect en­dan­gered species dur­ing con­struc­tion projects.

Erick­son blames the shut­down on Trump and his de­mand for a bor­der wall.

“One can ar­gue over the mer­its of bor­der se­cu­rity,” he said. “But if you re­ally think about it, walls are pretty in­ef­fec­tive.”

Erick­son called Wash­ing­ton’s po­lit­i­cal di­vide de­press­ing.

“We’ve moved to the point where we no longer see the per­son who has a dif­fer­ent set of views as dif­fer­ent,” he said. “We see them as evil.”

AP PHOTO/MATT ROURKE

Nora Brooks a fur­loughed cus­tomer ser­vice rep­re­sen­ta­tive for the In­ter­nal Rev­enue Ser­vice poses for a pho­to­graph at her home in Philadel­phia, Thurs­day, Jan. 3, 2019. Brooks has been fur­loughed, wor­ry­ing about whether she will need to seek a sec­ond job. The agency re­quires preap­proval to avoid con­flicts of in­ter­est, but there’s no one in the of­fice to sign off.

AP PHOTO/STEVEN SENNE

In this Thurs­day, Jan. 3, 2019, photo Mike Gayza­gian, a 49-yearold Trans­porta­tion Se­cu­rity Ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cer at Bos­ton’s Lo­gan In­ter­na­tional Air­port, speaks with a re­porter from The As­so­ci­ated Press at his home in Water­town, Mass. Gayza­gian, who has worked for the TSA more than a decade, got his last pre-shut­down pay­check last week, but he con­tin­ues to re­port to work, as all TSA of­fi­cers have since the gov­ern­ment closed. The 49-year-old said wor­ry­ing about fi­nances has made it dif­fi­cult to con­cen­trate on the work of keep­ing air­ports safe.

AP PHOTO/MICHAEL KUNZELMAN

Fur­loughed fed­eral worker Amanda Wag­ner works on a photo al­bum at a cof­fee shop in Sil­ver Spring, Md., Thurs­day, Jan. 3, 2019. Un­able to go to work, she spent the morn­ing at the cof­fee shop, which was of­fer­ing free drinks to fur­loughed fed­eral work­ers.

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