Government workers tighten belts, brace for first missing paychecks during shutdown

Janna Herron

Tailor Gutierrez, a furloughed worker for the Internal Revenue Service, no longer buys meat. She eats ramen, or white rice and gravy instead.

“We’re trying to find things that are cheap, but filling and sort of healthy," the 19-year-old says.

Across the country, 800,000 furloughed federal employees, like Gutierrez, and their families are running the numbers, tightening their budgets and bracing for a missed paycheck, due to most on Friday.

Those paychecks are on hold for federal workers forced on unpaid leave or working without pay because of the partial government shutdown. For most, their last paycheck was Dec. 28. And with two in five Americans unable to afford a $400 emergency, that empty pay period hurts.

Korinne Sharp, a disabled veteran who is on unpaid leave from Customs and Border Protection is tapping the savings she had built up. “Dipping into that is really scary,” says the 40-year-old from Euless, Texas, who had hoped to use the financial cushion in case her chronic back injury flared up. "My back could get to the point I can’t work anymore."

Union members and other federal employees rally to call for an end to the partial government shutdown, Jan. 10, 2019 at AFL-CIO Headquarters in Washington.

Making 'adjustments'

President Trump this week said workers hurt by the shutdown will “make adjustments” to deal with the financial strain.

This is what they’re doing.

On a Facebook page called “The Official Government Shutdown Group,” federal workers are sharing stories of cutting corners such as shopping at discount stores and selling their stuff on Facebook Marketplace.

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Some post instructions on how furloughed workers can get second jobs, a process made harder by the shutdown.

Others have turned to online fundraising and credit unions for help. GoFundMe has seen more than 1,000 campaigns that raised about $150,000 for those affected by the shutdown, a company spokesman says.

About 6,000 of the 100,000 Navy Federal Credit Union members affected by the shutdown have already enrolled in its loan program for furloughed workers. And 50 members of the Miami Federal Credit Union, which serves 3,500 people, have applied for furlough relief. That number is expected to rise.

“These are not people who are rich. Many live paycheck to paycheck,” says Buster Castiglia, the credit union’s president and CEO. “If you miss one, it’s a difficult situation to deal with.”

At Northland Area Federal Credit Union headquartered in Oscoda, Michigan, one Forest Service firefighter was struggling before he got approved for a low-interest loan for furloughed workers. “He sent a message saying, ‘We weren’t going to pay our mortgage payment, so we could feed the kids,’” says Matt Duthler, spokesman for the credit union.

Depending on the farm

In Texas, Sharp feels blessed even though she’s furloughed from the CBP. Deemed a nonessential employee, she now spends her days on her small farm, trying to turn a profit. She has nearly 18 acres with berry bushes, orchards, a vegetable garden, rabbits, chickens and guinea fowl.

The farm is helping her save money. Instead of grocery shopping, Sharp depends on foods from her farm that she froze over the summer and fall. She also makes money giving tours of her property and selling produce. Before, that money went to padding her savings. Now it’s her only income.

“I’ve also been going through my stuff to see what I can sell,” she says. “My fancy shoes, coats from designer brands, some farm projects. Maybe my horse trailer. That could be worth a bit.”

She hasn’t ruled out a new job, but it pains her to think that after 17 years of government service, first with the Air Force then the Air Force Reserves and now CBP, the shutdown could force her elsewhere.

“I never thought of leaving the government. Maybe I can get transferred to another department not under furlough,” she says. “I’m lucky that I have big enough savings to help me for a little bit. But I can’t afford it if this goes too long.”

Waiting it out

At night, Gutierrez of Ogden, Utah, wakes up after three or four hours of sleep and scrolls through the news on her phone, hoping the shutdown has been resolved.

“I assumed it wouldn’t be that long, like last time, so I wasn’t too worried,” she says. “By the second week, I got a little worried and now it looks like it’s going to stay.”

She applied for unemployment benefits, which won’t come through for at least another two weeks. She wants to apply for a temporary or side job, but she must get pre-approval from the IRS first, which has proven difficult to obtain.

She can’t turn to her family for help. Her grandfather is disabled and can’t work, while her grandmother is also furloughed. “I helped her get a job at the IRS,” Gutierrez says. “As soon she got settled there, it got shut down.”

With less than $100 in savings, she’s doing what she can. No more date nights with her boyfriend, or home-cooked pot roast and corned beef. Her landlord – also her boyfriend’s grandmother – waived her portion of the rent this month. But she’s not sure what to do when her car insurance and payment come due at the end of January.

“If this goes on for a month, I’ll look into getting a new job,” Gutierrez says. “But this is a good job for me. The IRS would help pay for my college. I wanted to try to make it into a career.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Government workers tighten belts, brace for first missing paychecks during shutdown