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Returning Christmas Gifts and Taking a Second Job: Federal Workers Are Already Feeling the Pain of the Shutdown

5 minute read

Julie Burr will receive her last paycheck from the federal government on Dec. 31. After that, she’s doesn’t know when the next one is coming. So, while she waits for President Donald Trump’s standoff with Congress over funding for a border wall to come to an end, the single mother has taken on extra shifts at Barnes and Noble.

“It’s not going to pay all my bills, but it will help put food on the table,” Burr, 49, tells TIME.

Burr, who lives in Kansas City, Missouri and is currently furloughed from her position as an employee for a private company working with the Department of Transportation, says she has enough savings to last a couple of weeks without pay from her job. But with no end in sight to the shutdown, which went into place at midnight Friday, her worries are growing.

“After about two weeks, it’s going to really hurt my pocketbook,” says Burr. “I wasn’t prepared for a long shutdown.”

The partial shutdown has left many government workers wondering when their next paycheck will arrive. Online, a chorus of employees and their families relating their experiences being furloughed — mandated unpaid leave — or working without pay banded together under the hashtag #ShutdownStories.

It is not yet clear how long the shutdown will last. Trump told reporters Tuesday that parts of the government will remain closed until Democrats agree to provide $5 billion in funding for a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. Democrats have opposed spending money on a border wall, and have argued instead for putting funds into technology, fencing and other methods of securing the border.

The shutdown has different ramifications on government employees depending on their status. According Democrats on the Senate Appropriation Committee, about 380,000 federal workers are facing furloughs — mandatory unpaid time off — including 86% of the Department of Commerce, 96% of NASA, more than 80% of the National Park Service, 80% of the Forest Service and 30% of the Department of Transportation.

More than 420,000 employees will have to work without pay for the duration of the shutdown, including 88% of the Department of Homeland Security and more than 41,000 federal law enforcement and correctional officers. Retroactive pay for essential federal workers is only likely to come with Congressional approval after the shutdown ends.

For contracted workers like Burr, it’s unclear if any backpay will arrive at all.

The confusion over when and how people will be paid is having devastating consequences for some families of affected workers. Michelle Maples, whose wife is a federal employee for the Department of Homeland Security — where at least 157,000 employees are showing up to work for no pay — is currently recovering from heart surgery and cannot work. Because her wife (who declined to be named) is working without pay, neither person in their household is bringing in any money at the moment, Maples tells TIME.

“We definitely live paycheck to paycheck,” Maples, 40, says. “It’s not as easy as it seems.”

The stress over how Maples and her wife will pay their upcoming rent, growing medical bills and car payments has compounded with the shutdown, she says. The pacemaker she wears had to work extra to keep her heart regulated over the last five days, indicating that her heart rate was bouncing up and down. The couple had to change their holiday plans and returned some of the Christmas gifts they’d bought to bridge the gap between paychecks.

While Trump has claimed that many federal workers “want the wall” and have told him to “stay out until you get funding for the wall,” the heads of the major federal employee unions have disputed that. And those affected by the shutdown see the situation in a different light. Maples says she wants the President to listen more to Americans who are directly affected by the shutdown.

“How do we explain that our landlords won’t always understand?” she says. “It’s not that we don’t care about border security. But it’s also that we care about paying our bills. A timely check matters to people.”

Burr hopes Trump can find a compromise without bringing the government to a halt. “I do believe border security is important,” she says. “I don’t necessarily think it needs to involve a physical wall.”

For other families, the shutdown means further tightening already strained budgets. One federal employee who works as a statistician at the U.S. Census Bureau (and declined to be named) tells TIME that he’s looking into filing for unemployment and wants to put a freeze on his student loans.

“The truth is my family is struggling,” he says, noting that his son has special needs that pose an even more significant financial burden.

In October, the family moved to Alexandria, Va. from Raleigh for his job at the U.S. Census Bureau, leading their rent to nearly double — a sacrifice he was willing to make for the stability of the job. Now, sustaining that new life has grown much more challenging.

“I no longer purchase clothes for myself and I cut my own hair,” he says. “If I miss a paycheck, I will be putting rent on a credit card.”

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Write to Mahita Gajanan at mahita.gajanan@time.com