Government shutdown: US federal workers turn to pawn shops for cash as stalemate goes on

Sally Newall, Riya Patel, Pippa Bailey

US federal workers who are not getting paid during the longest government shutdown in the country's history are increasingly turning to pawnbrokers for short-term loans, according to shop owners.

The turnout is small – a few people per day – pawnbrokers said, but many expect the numbers to increase amid the stalemate.

Blaine Fortner, the owner of a pawn shop in Billings, Montana, said: “They’re just bringing more and more in because they’re getting behind.”

About 800,000 federal workers have missed a paycheck during the nearly month-long shutdown.

Thousands have filed for unemployment benefit and private businesses, banks and charitable organisations are offering help in the form of suspended fees and food banks.

Pawnbrokers say they are essentially providing another form of assistance.

In Billings, an average of about three federal workers walk into his shop, Yellowstone Pawn, each day, Mr Fortner said.

Some are what Mr Fortner calls “regulars”, federal employees with cash flow problems who have made good use of his shop before.

Billings has a federal courthouse and offices for the Interior Department and the Bureau of Reclamation.

But there are also new faces, like the man who recently came in with high-quality Pendleton Blankets and said he had been furloughed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

The blankets, if new, would probably cost a few hundred dollars. Mr Fortner gave him about $50.

“He just mentioned that things were getting a little tight,” Mr Fortner said.

In a typical pawn, the pawnbroker lends money to customers based, in part, on the value of collateral they bring into the shop.

Customers pay interest on that loan, which lasts for a few months. The exact amount varies by business and is also based on regulations in each state.

Mr Fortner, for example, charges 20 per cent interest per month and he holds items for two months.

The customer can either repay the loan in full and get the item back, or the pawnbroker gets to keep the merchandise and sell it.

In theory, because federal employees most likely will get back pay when the shutdown ends, they should be able to recover items they pawned.

But Mr Fortner said that about six times a day, he gets a call from a federal worker who pawned an item and is worried about paying the loan back.

Michael Mack, owner of Max Pawn in Las Vegas, said he is seeing a similar increase in the number of federal workers who visit his store.

Mr Mack said he was offering to waive the interest payments for furloughed federal workers for four-month loans.

“We’re dealing with people that are affected by cash flow problems all the time,” Mr Mack said. “These are people that didn’t plan on it at all.”

Mr Mack said one woman came in last month and said her family was visiting from California and that she did not have enough money for Christmas dinner. So she pawned her mother’s wedding ring.

“She was so scared to be in there,” he said. “She never expected this to happen to her.”

Richard Andrews, a pawnbroker at Alexandria Pawn in Virginia, also said he had been seeing more federal workers in his shop. Some talk about their stories. Others are reticent. But Andrews said he could usually tell if they were federal workers.

“You can tell a lot by people’s shoes,” he said. “They have dress shoes on. They’re not wearing tennis shoes or running shoes.”

One family, unfamiliar with the process, came in last week with a 60-inch high-definition, flat-screen television. They wanted a $200 or $300 loan. Andrews said he could give them only $75.

“Everybody is just complaining, they don’t know what they are going to do,” Mr Andrews said. “Now they are having to give up the stuff they did work hard for.”

New York Times