Federal workers furloughed or working without pay under the partial government shutdown are feeling the sting of going nearly two weeks without receiving any new money as bills start to pile up.
“It’s stressful,” says Nicole Rhoads, a resource assistant at Wayne National Forest in Nelsonville, Ohio. She was last paid on Dec. 28 and does not know when the next payday is arriving. As the shutdown goes on, it’s unclear how she will keep up with her bills. “Rent doesn’t get furloughed,” she says.
Workers trying to make rent, student loan, car, credit card and other payments that make up monthly bills are under severe strain as portions of the federal government remain shut down for a third week, becoming, so far, the second-longest shutdown in U.S. history. The last paycheck most federal employees received came around Dec. 28. This Friday will mark the first payday where nothing will come.
The government aimed to offer a way to ease the stress over money in the form of a notice on Dec. 27 from the Office of Personnel Management, which oversees federal workers. In its guidance, OPM advised those who will not be paid during the shutdown to reach out to landlords, creditors or mortgage lenders to request reduced payments. The office provided sample letters people could use to negotiate payment. One letter, which has since been removed from the guidance, originally suggested employees ask their landlords to barter maintenance service for partial rent payments — advice that invited staunch criticism on social media and worker representatives. Tony Reardon, the president of the National Treasury Employees Union, said the suggestion was “laughable” in an interview with CNN.
“I think it’s disgusting, candidly,” he said. “It’s wrong to treat human beings this way.”
An OPM spokesperson apologized on Dec. 29, saying the “inadvertently” released documents were out of date.
The government’s suggestions have not exactly panned out for workers.
Andrew Van Singel, a furloughed federal employee who lives in Chicago, says he reached out to his landlord and asked to have his rent deferred until the shutdown is over to no avail. Like many federal workers, he will not receive a paycheck this Friday, when he would normally be paid.
“I’d heard that there was a statement made that landlords would work with us,” Van Singel says. “They said no, they’re still enforcing the terms of the contract.”
To help in the short term, Van Singel is considering putting his rent and other expenses on a credit card. But other bills don’t always accept payment on credit. The 36-year-old, who is also an attorney, says he may seek out a temporary legal work, though he feels the open question about when the shutdown will end makes it hard for employers to take a gamble on hiring him.
Rhoads, 23, echoed a similar concern. While she was able to rely on her family to help her through the holidays, she’s now considering seeking a part-time job where she lives in Athens, Ohio to earn money during her furlough — but worries about abandoning a new job upon the government reopening.
“I don’t want to leave an employer behind,” she says. “But if it goes beyond more than a month, I can’t go without a paycheck. I can’t. I hate saying that this shutdown has left me in the dust, but it really has.”
Rhoads said she could not consider asking her landlord for a payment delay and that she would not want to get in the way of maintenance workers already hired to do the work that OPM suggested she barter for, such as painting or carpentry.
“Isn’t that problematic? They don’t need my help,” she says. “That’s a cycle I won’t want to be a part of.” She adds: “But I’m very lucky. It’s just me and my roommate. If you have a family or kids, I can understand if you need to do something like that.”
For one Internal Revenue Service employee in Philadelphia, the suggestion from the government to reach out to lenders and landlords only compounded the stress of the shutdown.
“The government asking employees to barter to pay rent or creditors was extremely distressing to me,” says the employee, who declined to share her name. “We don’t even know our landlord. When we moved, we had to sign a paper that states if we were a few days late with rent they could start eviction proceedings.”
The employee, who was recalled back to work on Jan. 7 after being furloughed when the shutdown first started on Dec. 22, says working without pay just makes it harder to complete tasks.
“It’s extremely inhumane of the government to expect federal employees to work without a paycheck,” she says. “It hinders my ability to concentrate on processing my work and serve taxpayers to the best of my abilities. Morale is not high.”
When the shutdown started, workers felt somewhat hopeful that things would wrap up soon. Now, they are desperate for any change.
“Right now it feels like indentured servitude,” the employee says. “We just want the shutdown to end, for employees to be paid retroactively and for some provisions to be put into place where federal employees will not have to work without a paycheck.”
Van Singel, who has been passing his time off during the furlough doing puzzles and volunteering, says the third week marks the first time he’s felt real fear over his future.
“I thought it would be over in a week or two. I didn’t think it was that serious,” he says. “I’m good financially until the beginning of next month, but then the bills come in. All these things, a week ago I wasn’t concerned about, but now it’s a real concern.”
Correction, Jan 10:
The original version of this story misstated when the Office of Personnel Management issued a guidance to federal workers. It was sent on Dec. 27, not over the past weekend.