Voices of the Shutdown: What It Means to Federal Employees

Federal workers share their experience about abrupt cuts in pay during the government shutdown

As federal workers around the nation watched the shutdown creep toward a third week, they shared their experiences of abrupt pay cuts, worries about bills and rent, and what they're doing now that their lives have been put on hold.

Here are some of their stories.

Michele Spellman
Internal Revenue Service
Rocky Hill, Conn.

When news of a possible government shutdown first surfaced, Michele Spellman, 54, thought it was nothing more than "scare tactics" -- posturing from politicians trying to make a point. Now, she's trying to figure out how to pay for her son's college tuition, and rationing her visits to the grocery store.

"I only am getting necessities," said Spellman, who works in the general revenue department of the IRS and has been furloughed since Oct. 1. "I want to make sure the money is there if this continues to go on."

Spellman, who lives in Rocky Hill, Conn., has not received a paycheck since mid-September. She's expecting one more check around Oct. 17, but it will only include money for hours worked through September.

"There has been some talk that they are going to pay us retroactively, which seems ridiculous," she said. "If they are going to pay us for this time that we miss, why can I just not go in to work now?"

Spellman is concerned about paying her son's college tuition -- the due date for the next payment, she said, is fast approaching.

"Paying for college is already difficult," she said, "but now we are going to have to scrounge around."

Spellman is just hoping that the shutdown ends soon.

"I wake up every morning not sure whether or not I will be going to work that day," she said. "I feel like they are holding us hostage."

-- Alyana Alfaro 

Cynthia Brown
Government Printing Office
Waldorf, Md.

The bathrooms where Cynthia Brown works nights at the Government Printing Office are closed, locked with a sign telling workers the facilities are off-limits until the shutdown ends.

But Brown still has to drive the roughly 25 miles to work each evening from the home in Waldorf, Md., which she’s now struggling to afford. As an essential employee, she’s still required to go to work -- except now she’s not being paid, and the bills are piling up. Gas alone is $60 a week.

A single mother of two who also supports her 71-year-old disabled father, she’s sold some of her furniture on Craigslist and has visited local food pantries. Due to a medical problem last month that resulted in five days’ unpaid leave, she wasn’t prepared to weather the shutdown and still hasn’t paid rent and utilities for October.

"I don't think I'm going to able to make it. And they can only be so patient,” she said. “There are some that are working with me, but the worst thing is you can't tell them a date."

She never talked much about politics before, even though she prints the congressional records of each session -- "ironically," she adds, since members of Congress are still being paid, and she's now working for free.

"If they just knew how much this is affecting ordinary people when they're still receiving their pay," Brown said.

One of the hardest parts is seeing her kids, ages 14 and 17, missing out. She missed the first payment for her older daughter’s senior trip and couldn’t buy her senior portrait. A recent parents’ night at her daughter’s school was disheartening.

"It's very saddening, when they're talking about tuition and scholarships, all of that has to be put on the back burner," she said. "It's like impending doom."

Brown said she hopes the shutdown doesn’t have a lasting effect on her children, who have tried to be understanding, but sometimes can’t hide their disappointment.

"I hope that they don't see a future like this ahead of them,” she said. "I just try to stay strong and do what I can for them."

-- Carissa DiMargo 

Jon Anderson
Agency withheld on his request
Fairfax County, Va.

Jon Anderson admits he and his wife are fortunate to have savings to fall back on during the shutdown. Even so, the lack of income is never far from his mind -- to the point that he considered postponing his son's first birthday party Saturday.

"I debated having us cancel and postpone his birthday party until after the shutdown is over to avoid spending money on food, decorations, etc.," he wrote in an email to NBC Washington."...It sucks that this is supposed to be an enjoyable time but with this shutdown... in the back of my mind, and not knowing when my next paycheck will come, it is making it hard to enjoy."

The couple has enough to get through the next few months if the shutdown drags on.

"But it sucks that we've worked diligently to save money [and] that it's going to have to be put towards our mortgage, student loan payments and other bills that my paycheck would cover," Anderson said.

His wife is a graduate student at George Mason University and makes a small stipend, so he is usually the main source of income for their family.

"It is a very weird feeling to feel so much uncertainty when it comes to providing for your family," he said.

In the meantime, Anderson's been spending his free time running errands, doing volunteer work -- and developing a new hobby.

"I've always wanted to start my own doughnut shop, but I haven't had enough time to do research and perfect my doughnut-making abilities," he said.

He's considering setting up a stand on the National Mall and handing them out to passersby. He's even contemplated a name: fur-doughs -- although he admits it "doesn't sound appetizing."

 -- Carissa DiMargo

Betty Reid Soskin
National Park Service
San Pablo, Calif.

Betty Reid Soskin, 92, just may be the country's oldest full-time furloughed worker. Before Oct. 1, Soskin worked three days a week giving tours at the Rosie the Riveter/World War II Home Front National Historical Park in Richmond, Calif., and two days a week at National Park Service administrative offices.

Like most federal workers, Soskin is frustrated -- but for a different reason than many.

"At this stage of my career, I have a sense of urgency," Soskin said. "This is my last decade, and I can't afford to have anyone waste my time."

What she's also upset about is the possible postponement of an event planned for Saturday, when the Richmond center is supposed to be part of the annual Chamber of Commerce Home Front Festival. The festival will still go on at the Craneway Pavilion in Richmond with a full array of planned activities.

Like her, Soskin said, the aging Rosies know this is their last decade of life, and being held up by government is certainly not on their bucket list.

"All these Rosies [female shipyard workers during World War II, named for Rosie the Riveter] are coming in for the reunion," Soskin said. "And these women are between 85 and 95."

So, Soskin said, the government better hurry up and get their acts together.

U.S. Rep. George Miller (D-Richmond), agrees. In a statement, he said he has known Soskin for 40 years, and thinks it's a shame she isn't working.

Soskin "is an icon to the National Park Service," Miller said. "She's a historian, a spokeswoman, a role model, a teacher, and an embodiment of the spirit of Rosie the Riveter. Only something as wrongheaded and misguided as this government shutdown could keep her off the job."

For her part, Soskin wants to get back to work. The clock is ticking.

"I've only got a finite amount of time," she said, "to make my contribution."

-- Lisa Fernandez and Cheryl Hurd

Ashlee [last name withheld]
Agency withheld on her request
Alameda, Calif.

Ashlee, 28, is still reporting to her job every day, thanks to being deemed an essential employee. But after she gets a paycheck early next week, she doesn't know when the next will come. And this next check will be awfully slim.

"It won't even be what my rent would be for a month," she said.

Like many federal workers, Ashlee was reluctant to publicly share the name of the agency for which she works, and she asked that her last name not be used. But this week, she said the mood at work is grim.

"Everybody's just kind of waiting. I think we all just kind of wake up every day hoping that it's over," she said.

"You come to work, and everyone's down. Morale is down," she said. Everyone is anxious about the shutdown and wondering when it will end. "You can't get away from it."

Ashlee, who's single with no children, considers herself one of the lucky ones amid the shutdown, since she doesn't have to worry about supporting anybody else. But she will have trouble making rent and her student loan payments.

"I'm 28 years old, and I'm going to have to ask my parents for money," she said. "And it's not like they're rich or anything.

"My grandparents are getting in-home care assistance that's partially funded by the VA, and now that's in jeopardy, too. They don't know if it will run out."

Ashlee is frustrated with what she sees as Congress' obliviousness to her and other federal employees' struggles.

"Why is it they can't agree? Why are they getting paid right now, and I'm not?" she asked.

"Some [members of Congress] don't even realize the consequences of this whole thing, and they see no rush to settle the dispute over Obamacare, or whatever it is. Why do they think they can just continue this when so many people are suffering?"

Ashlee worries that the shutdown won't do the U.S. any favors internationally, either.

"I don't even want to know what the rest of the world things about us right now, seriously," she said. "We already don't have a great image to the rest of the world right now, and they're probably just laughing. It's sad, really."

 -- Sam Schulz

Lisa [last name withheld]
Agency withheld on her request
Arlington, Va.

Lisa, the single mother of a child with special needs, received her last paycheck for the foreseeable future Friday. After that, she's not sure what will happen.

"I could only pay half of my October rent so that I would have money to get groceries until my next and possibly last check tomorrow," said Lisa, who asked that her last name not be published. Many government employees have been told not to comment on the shutdown.

While Lisa's landlord, also a government employee, is being understanding, some members of her extended family hasn't.

"To add insult to injury, I have some family members who feel my furlough is deserved because I'm overpaid, according to them," she said. "Over half my monthly income goes to rent alone. I'm tired of being vilified. I want to work. My colleagues want to work. We don't live high on the hog."

She was able to get a forbearance on her student loans, but says her utility providers and creditors aren't going to be as understanding.

And if shutdown talks that seemed promising early Friday afternoon fall through, Lisa's concern will only grow.

"The holidays will be around the corner," she said. "How do I tell my special needs child that she may not have Christmas?"

-- Carissa DiMargo

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