Work

“My Friends Have Just Been PayPal-ing Me Out of Nowhere”

Furloughed federal employees and contractors on how they’re getting by during this period of no paychecks.

A sign is displayed on a government building in D.C. that is closed due to the partial U.S. government shutdown, on Dec. 22.
A sign is displayed on a government building in D.C. that is closed due to the partial U.S. government shutdown, on Dec. 22.
Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images

It’s Day 34 of the government shutdown, with no clear end in sight. The president confirmed Wednesday that the shutdown, triggered by the ongoing dispute over funds for his proposed southern border wall, “will go on for a while.” According to USA Today, acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney delivered another signal that the administration is preparing for an indefinite shutdown when he asked agencies to “provide lists of programs that will be endangered if the shutdown lasts for weeks and even months more.”

Hanging in the balance are such minor things as the functioning of our government and the lives of an estimated 800,000 federal workers who are about to miss their second paycheck since the shutdown started in December. While over 300,000 are completely furloughed, over half of those affected are working without pay, according to CNBC. The ongoing stalemate has wreaked havoc on these workers’ household budgets, with many seeking side jobs or applying for unemployment and other forms of assistance. Here are the stories of five federal employees and contractors about how they’re managing financially and whether they think the shutdown was worth the politics behind it.

Interviews have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

The NASA lead systems engineer

I work for NASA as a lead systems engineer, and I live in Huntsville, Alabama. I’ve been furloughed since the shutdown started, since Dec. 26. I did get a full paycheck the first week of January because it was initialized before the shutdown, and they had enough funds to cover it, but we haven’t gotten paid since then. My position is kind of a promotion and I just got that in December. We have a new program that we were supposed to be standing up this month, but that’s obviously not essential or accepted and so that’s not happening right now.

I currently have three side gigs going. Gig economy, right? I’m hand-writing note cards for a realtor friend, and this week I should start copy-editing a lawyer friend’s book that she’s almost done writing. I’m also working for my mother. We were about to the point where we were going to have to hire somebody to help her at home anyway, so while the furlough lasts, she’s just paying me to help her instead.

In terms of bills and stuff, I’ve actually been really lucky. I have my mortgage and my car payment through a local credit union that serves DOD and NASA and other federal employees. They said that they’ll essentially do a skip-and-pay arrangement for 90 days, and after that they can do reduced payments. So that’s helping a lot, but I’ve cut out most non-essential expenses: I don’t eat out, I don’t go places, I don’t buy anything that I don’t absolutely have to have. I think it’s kind of silly that this [border wall] discussion is happening while all of us are out of work. This isn’t a simple discussion. They haven’t been able to solve it for the last two years and so the idea of trying to solve such a complex problem in a couple of weeks doesn’t make real good sense.

The EPA biologist

I’ve worked at the Environmental Protection Agency for about 12 years. My laboratory focuses on water distribution, waste water, and drinking water treatment practices. This is the first long shutdown I’ve experienced because I was out of the country for the one in 2013. EPA’s furlough started after the first week of the shutdown, and the last time I was paid was the second week of January. It was half [my usual] paycheck.

I looked at the balance in my bank accounts a few days ago just to see how things were going, and I was shocked to see that I wasn’t going to have a nervous breakdown, but I’m definitely not going out as much. I haven’t picked up a side gig yet, but I have been eyeing some moonlighting jobs, so I think I may look into taking something up next week if the shutdown continues. They would be doing some landscape design work, residential landscape design, so definitely different from what I do day in and day out, but something that I studied back in college.

I haven’t had to [explain the situation to bill collectors] as of yet. I think having worked for about 12 years I’m in a fortunate spot to have a few months of disposable income, but that definitely wasn’t meant to be used in this manner. If anything came up that would be a big expenditure, I would definitely put it to the side until the shutdown was over.

I know some people or colleagues [who have been called in to work without pay], but I personally have not been. I was listening to NPR yesterday afternoon and there was a special during the lunch hour on the Chesapeake Bay program that the EPA runs, and that’s part of what I work on, and it was talking about a lot of problems with the Chesapeake Bay. I don’t anticipate being called to work without pay, but the more you see stuff like that in the news, I could see potentially some folks being called in.

I think it was worth it, to a certain extent, having different opinions being thrown out there with different types of border security, but I think as I read the news or listen to the news every day I personally start to question [the value]. I’m starting to question it a lot more given that there are a lot of people struggling, more each day.

The Department of Justice case manager

I was scheduled for vacation at the end of the year, but I ended up getting furloughed. [My last paycheck] was a month ago, it was literally the last check of the year and was a full paycheck. I’m a hustler by nature, I’m originally from New York and I’ve actually already been driving Uber and Lyft part-time. It was an extremely side gig, I was doing it maybe on the weekends. So I kicked it up to full-time and through the grace of God, I’m doing good. Tired as hell, but I’m doing good.

I’m married, so my wife and I, we sat down, and we’ve had student loans, she’s had her student loans, we’ve got a forbearance with that. I’m taking advantage of what the creditors are offering as far as my car note and everything like that. Everyone’s been notified. The bank has helped me out, the next car note’s not due until April, so we’re doing [financial] things that we wouldn’t normally ordinarily do.

The humbling part is when I first called my credit cards to tell them that I’m furloughed, a couple of them wanted to close my account and put me in a program. It’s frustrating because there’s nothing I’ve done to cause this. It’s taken me a long time to get to where I am and to establish the credit that I’ve established, so that was the first punch in the stomach. Waking up every day and listening to this mess on the news, it’s a slap in the face. But that’s the resiliency of being a black man, it’s nothing that I’m not used to.

The thing is this is supposed to be a secure job. What’s more secure than working for the federal government? Yet here we are going on three days from not being paid in over a month. It just goes to show that this administration is using us as pawns. That’s the frustrating part, just sitting here and being helpless and being pawns in all of this. That’s just the general consensus [with my colleagues].

I was called in [to work without pay] two weeks ago, Jan. 11 I went in. And I was supposed to go in this coming Friday but it’s not happening, I’m not going. I don’t think [the shutdown was worth it]. Nobody in their right damned mind who’s not getting paid, who hasn’t gotten paid in over a month, is standing in agreement with this crap.

The EPA budget analyst

I’ve been with the agency for almost eight and a half years now. They were able to keep us open for a week after the official shutdown, so we’ve been on shutdown since Dec. 28. The last time I was paid was Jan. 11; it was a partial check.

I’m a budget analyst so I’m pretty smart with my money, but that’s not going to last forever. I have not had to ask for help, but I have a very strong and very supportive network which has offered me help—my friends have just been PayPal-ing me out of nowhere. My family has done the same. My network of moms, specifically the Mom Squad with the Momference, they were able to connect me with an organization that wanted to provide a grant to a single black mother affected by the shutdown, so I was able to receive a very nice piece of change for support. I am going to use it to pay my mortgage for February.

My credit union and all of my banks have contacted me, saying that if you’re affected by the shutdown, give us a call, we can help. They are offering to put a forbearance on current loans. There is support out there. Child care is a concern, but fortunately my daughter’s in kindergarten and she normally goes to after-care while I’m at work, but I’ve pulled her out of after-care for now.

I keep saying I won’t have to pick up a side gig, that this is the last week, but I’ve been playing around with driving for Uber or Lyft. I used to do freelance makeup, so I might dust off my brushes again. I’ve been thinking of other things, like teaching English online. I think I can stay afloat for another month, and if that doesn’t work then I will consider filing for unemployment and picking up a side gig.

It’s not just federal workers that are affected, especially living in D.C. It’s the entire region, it’s trickling down to small businesses and other people that rely on federal workers. I have a rental unit in my home, and my tenant cleans houses and her clients are canceling, so not only is it my paycheck but my other source of income that’s being affected right now because my tenant can’t pay her rent.

The federal technology contractor

I’ve been a federal contractor for 25 years, and I’ve worked with just about every agency in the government. My particular firm today works with the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Education, the Department of Transportation. We work with most agencies.

We’ve had shutdowns before and the first weeks are relatively easy, people can take paid time off that they haven’t used up. After two weeks, you have to start doing unnatural things. You have to start getting bank loans, people are out of not only PTO but any amount of PTO that you could’ve loaned them, and people are also coming up on their own personal savings.

It just gets to a point where, as a contractor, you are paying people to do nothing. Many, not all, but many federal employees will recuperate the money that they lost. Federal contactors don’t. In the last shutdown that was just two and a half weeks, I knew two service-disabled veterans’ firms that went bankrupt because they could never recover.

We have a contract with USDA that includes Beltsville, Maryland; St. Louis, and Kansas City. I had to let 11 people go yesterday, nine of them were their [families’] primary breadwinners. It’s funny, in Missouri, in Kansas City and St. Louis, most of them supported President Trump during the election. It was hard, in one particular case where the guy is just a lovely, Christian guy, and he’s got five kids and his wife doesn’t work. He’s a senior leader on the project, and we especially tried to do everything we could to keep him on and we just couldn’t any longer. That was a heartbreaking call to make.

If this thing doesn’t end really and I mean really, really soon, if this thing goes into February, it’ll be bloody awful. There will be 80, 100 people laid off? The impact will be massive, just within our little firm. As a business, we’ve had to take out some unnatural loans which could at some point put our business in peril. The management team across the board has taken increasingly significant cuts personally, but that’s just the right thing to do, that’s not me being a hero, that’s just the right thing to do. If it stops tomorrow, it would still be painful, but we’d get by.

Again, if it goes another 10 days, I don’t know. We’ll have to take out more loans, we’ll have to cut more people including overhead staff and at some point, the whole thing becomes unsustainable. Our bank has been great, but we’re going to get sheltered at some point with a half-million loan that we should never have to had taken out. And now we’ll be stuck with that for years, all for what?

Give him the wall, don’t give him the wall, it’s 1/1000 of the federal budget. It’s like shutting down your house because you’re complaining about ATM fees. I get that he feels like he’s stuck with this base and he has to do this, and I get where the Democrats are saying, well if we give into this now. … At this point, I’m beyond caring. Will the wall work? Maybe. Will it hurt us? Not really. For $5 billion you’re getting what? A 30-mile wall. Build it, don’t build it, I don’t care. This whole thing is absolutely pointless.