Though President Donald Trump and Congress finally brokered a deal to end the longest federal government shutdown in U.S. history, members of the federal workforce are still left dealing with the financial pain it caused.
The partial shutdown stretched on for 35 days, depriving government employees of two paychecks. Although President Donald Trump said on Friday that federal workers will receive back pay “as soon as possible,” about 800,000 workers — many of whom have had to take out loans and find part-time work — will have to wait late into next week to receive their pay. Contract workers aren’t eligible for back pay at all.
Randy Erwin, the president of the National Federation of Federal Employees, said in a statement that the record-breaking shutdown “caused irreparable harm to working families across the country,” calling it a “shameful chapter in American history.”
“Federal workers and others have resorted to selling their possessions, and many have defaulted on loans and mortgages in order to afford heat, medicine, and food,” Erwin said.
The 35-day partial government shutdown exposed the reality that many Americans are living in financially precarious situations.
Seventy-eight percent of full-time workers say they live paycheck-to-paycheck, according to a 2017 CareerBuilder report. And 40 percent of adults say they would struggle to take on an unexpected $400 expense, reporting they would be forced to sell their belongings, borrow money, or forgo paying the bill at all, a 2017 Federal Reserve report found.
The people who make up the federal workforce often face specific financial constraints.
Federal worker salaries on average fall behind the salaries of their private sector counterparts by 31.86 percent, according to a 2018 Federal Salary Council report. In an executive order issued in December, Trump said pay rates for federal civilian employees would remain stagnant in 2019, claiming that approving a pay raise for federal workers would be “inappropriate” given the financial challenges facing the government.
The federal contractors who won’t receive back pay to compensate them for their missed hours of work are particularly vulnerable. Some estimates find that 40 percent of the entire government workforce is made up of contract workers, totaling 3.7 million people.
“I think [contractors] get lost by the wayside in the concentration on the 800,000 people who are direct employees of the federal government,” said Ken, a contractor for the Federal Aviation Administration who is based in New Jersey, during a Wednesday protest against the shutdown at the Hart Senate Building.
Sen. Tina Smith (D-MN) — along with Sens. Mark Warner (D-VA), Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Ben Cardin (D-MD) and Tim Kaine (D-VA) — introduced legislation earlier this month that would require federal agencies to work with contractors’ companies to secure back pay for those workers.
While the government was partially shuttered, unpaid workers still needed to figure out what to do about their bills. This month, unpaid federal workers owed about $438 million in mortgage and rent payments — which breaks down to $189 million in rent payments and $249 in mortgage payments — according to a report from the real-estate firm Zillow.
Federal workers told ThinkProgress that the shutdown forced them to take out loans, file for unemployment, take on part-time work, and even consider leaving town. Some of the choices they made over the past month may have lasting financial repercussions.
Patricia Floyd-Hicks, a furloughed worker for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) who attended Wednesday’s protest at the Hart Senate Building, told ThinkProgress that she had to dip into her savings as she prepares to retire.
Federal workers also worry that the shutdown could damage their credit scores, since workers only need to miss one credit card payment to have points taken off their credit score. Credit-scoring experts told CBSNews that it isn’t easy for a company like FICO to adjust its model in response to an event like the shutdown.
Although the government has reopened for at least the next three weeks, it’s unclear what will happen once lawmakers reach the February 15 deadline for the short-term spending bills that passed Friday. The uncertainty and financial instability is too much for some employees.
Several federal workers told ThinkProgress they are seriously considering whether they should leave the federal government altogether. According to research from the employment-related search engine Indeed, they fit into a bigger trend, as furloughed workers have been searching for jobs at an increased rate during the shutdown.
Indeed’s director of economic research, Martha Gimbel, compared job searches on the Indeed platform among employees in agencies across the government. She found that TSA workers’ job searches were up about 30 percent compared to the same time last year, while IRS workers’ job searches rose about 50 percent. Department of Health and Human Services workers’ searches were up 80 percent over this period last January.
The government watchdog group National Taxpayer Advocate estimates it will take about a year for the IRS’ operations to return to normal, according to the Washington Post — and one of the reasons for the delay, the group says, is that many of the agency’s workers have already decided to leave for the private sector.
Financial struggles can affect people’s mental health in serious ways, as research has shown. University of Southampton researchers published a 2013 report finding a significant relationship between debt and mental disorder, including depression. Findings from a 2016 study on U.S. households “suggest that short-term debt may have an adverse influence on psychological wellbeing.”
Many federal workers have now experienced this strain firsthand. When President Donald Trump threatened to keep the government partially shut down for months or even years, Jordan — who works for the U.S. Department for Housing and Urban Development, and who asked to withhold their full name and gender out of fear of retaliation for speaking to the press — said the “real shock” of hearing this remark “led me to some crazy thoughts.”
“There is a bit of fear that raged through my body,” Jordan said.
This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on January 26, 2019. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Casey Quinlan is a policy reporter at ThinkProgress covering economic policy and civil rights issues. Her work has been published in The Establishment, The Atlantic, The Crime Report, and City Limits.