Firsthand responses from families affected by the month-long layoff, and how community stakeholders are pitching in to help.
By Matt Skoufalos | January 21, 2019
On Tuesday, the current U.S. federal government shutdown will pass the 31-day mark, making it the longest in U.S. history.
With no end in sight to the budgetary stalemate, some 800,000 federal employees and hundreds of thousands more contract workers are searching for ways to keep going without a month’s worth of wages.
Workers deemed essential have been called in to do their jobs without pay; others have been furloughed, or seen their contracts unfunded.
Through it all, bills are piling up, credit is being extended, and families are spinning plates to make ends meet.
As they do, their neighbors are pitching in to help however they can.
Feeding furloughed families
On Monday, realtors Allie and Ryan Nagle of Haddon Township coordinated a furloughed family meal pickup at The Square Meal in Oaklyn.
The couple felt they had to pitch in when they heard from friends in the U.S. Coast Guard about how thin they were being stretched in the absence of their regular paychecks.
“It was something I knew to do within my means,” Allie Nagle said.
“We all like to cook. I called Jackie [Walther, of The Square Meal] and said, ‘Can we put something together?’”
Walther was quick to oblige.
She and husband Dan considered it a contribution for the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Day of Service, and opened the doors of their restaurant on their day off.
The couple prepared family-sized take-and-go meals for workers affected by the shutdown, and collected donations for the purchase of gift cards to help others more.
By 4 p.m., about 20 households had taken advantage of the offer.
“There’s been a lot of response,” Jackie Walther said. “I’m just happy to be able to do something that’s meaningful.”
“This isn’t going to put a paycheck in somebody’s bank account, but it’s saying we want to feed you and let you know we’re thinking about you,” Allie Nagle said.
Food insecurity is always a regional concern, but Fred Wasiak, President and CEO of the Food Bank of South Jersey, said the 250 local agencies with which it partners are reporting an uptick in persons served as the shutdown rolls on.
“These neighborhood pantries and agencies have relationships with the community,” Wasiak said.
“They know the routine participants that come in and get food. When they see a familiar face, we’re asking them to keep us abreast of what’s going on.”
The Macedonia Baptist Church in Gloucester County has served more than 25 new people above its normal patrons, “and those are government workers,” Wasiak said.
The Burlington Township Food Pantry reported a 10-percent increase in demand since the shutdown started, “and they’re anticipating that they’re going to run out of food,” he said.
Another pantry serving the Wooster Towers Apartments in Clementon reported “a significant number of people in their community who are furloughed,” which could be a sign of imminent need, Wasiak said.
Excluding those affected by the shutdown, the Food Bank serves 200,000 people in Burlington, Camden, Gloucester, and Salem Counties. The most needed contribution is still cash, Wasiak said: every dollar donated allows the agency to buy about five meals through its channels, and 90 percent of revenues are fed right back into the programs.
The CEO also said he’s fielded a lot of interest from local and small businesses that want to organize food drives, for which the Food Bank website includes a list of resources. He advised anyone in need of food to connect with the agency.
“We’re staying ahead of the game, and making sure that we do what we can to make sure that people don’t go to bed hungry,” Wasiak said. “We’re strong, we’re ready to serve, and that awareness may help folks who are victims of the shutdown.”
Bracing for benefits shortfalls
On January 8, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced that all federal nutrition programs—including Supplemental Nutrition Assistance (SNAP), the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP)—would be funded through February.
But with no plan for March yet, and no idea when the shutdown will break, the Camden County Board of Social Services worked frantically last week to advance federal food and healthcare benefits to eligible citizens.
“When it started, we didn’t think we were going to be affected so much, because the workers are local, but the benefits we issue are federal,” said one employee, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“Then we got word that starting February 1, nobody is going to get benefits until this is resolved, or until benefits are reissued.”
Camden County is one of the busiest in the country for benefits assistance, and the agency is typically working to clear and issue them right up until the scheduled delivery date. When the order came down to advance the February benefits this month, the agency kicked into overtime.
By the time it was all done, workers had hit a 95-percent completion rate—the best in the country.
“I saw that place come together like I’ve never seen it come together before,” the staffer said. “It was incredible seeing everybody from clerks up to the director of the agency working in the trenches.
“Nobody knows what’s going to happen March 1, but everybody who was able to get benefits got their benefits for February,” the worker said.
“We’re still going to be working on benefits, coding cases, doing re-certifications, in the hopes that something gets resolved and we have funding.
“Nothing changes except for the fact that it may not go out.”
‘I feel like a pawn’
Many local families affected by the shutdown won’t be getting any extra help, however.
One U.S. Department of Transportation employee, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, is about to miss a full month’s work of wages.
Despite being furloughed, that worker’s position is “excepted” from the stoppage, which means reporting for work as regularly scheduled, without pay, and without eligibility for unemployment assistance.
No one in the office is taking a “sick-out” for the same reason, despite the fact that many were obligated to cancel vacations and time off during the holidays (the shutdown began three days before Christmas 2018).
“Morale has taken a hit,” the worker said. “We’re still doing our work; it’s just not the same atmosphere that it used to be.
“Nobody’s doing call-outs in our office,” the worker said. “They’re doing their jobs, they’re doing a good job; they’d be happier knowing they were paid to do their jobs.”
There’s a significant amount of travel involved with safety inspections, and workers are provided with expense cards to pay for it. But those cards are issued in the workers’ individual names, and many federal employees are worried that their credit will be affected by any payments they miss due to their lack of income.
“We’re current on our bills, but one more mortgage payment at the end of the month and we’re going to be in the danger zone there,” the employee said. “Our mortgage company is not offering any flexibility yet.”
Workers are also operating short-staffed. The shutdown has frozen hiring, so job offers made before the shutdown also have been scuttled. Two of three people who were offered positions prior to the shutdown have accepted other jobs; a third, interviewed in August and hired in November, hasn’t been able to start yet.
Administrative help, which includes federal contract workers, also has dried up, with many fearing their positions will be culled as a workforce reduction.
“I started working for the government because I thought it was a secure, stable job,” the worker said. “I feel like a pawn. I feel like Washington, D.C. doesn’t think of us as people; they just think of us as something to manipulate to get what they want.
“Yes it’s hard to fire a government employee, but that doesn’t mean we’re laying around doing nothing,” the worker said. “Ninety-nine percent of the people I work with are dedicated, and they care what their job is, and they’re out there looking out for people.”
For Denise Riley of Collingswood, the shutdown has been deeply frustrating not only because it’s testing the limits of her family’s resourcefulness, but also it tarnishes the feelings of civic duty to which they have so faithfully adhered.
Riley provided the following statement, which we reprint here (with a few edits for length):
“From my husband’s deployment with the Army National Guard to the current demands of his career as a special agent with the FBI, our family’s experience has revolved around serving the needs of our country.
“Whether it’s cross-country moves or missed childhood milestones or numerous late nights, making sacrifices is not new to us. And we’ve done so willingly, as we know that these challenges come with the territory and that they are ultimately in service of protecting our nation.
“But what we’re expected to deal with during this government shutdown? It’s definitely not what we signed up for.
“We’ve spent hours on the phone with our mortgage-holder, utilities, and credit card companies. While some were willing to waive late fees or defer payments, these offers of assistance often came with a catch: late payments would still be reported to the credit bureaus.
“When your position requires a security clearance that depends on demonstrating well-managed finances, that’s not an option.
“We know the value of having emergency savings, and are prepared to miss a paycheck or two… but the bulk of our savings is in the Thrift Savings Plan (TSP), and employees are not permitted to take out a TSP loan during a government shutdown expected to last more than 30 days…
“We’re making meals out of the items from the back of our freezer or pantry, which our kids good-naturedly call ‘shutdown dinners’… We’ve canceled scheduled medical and vision check-ups to avoid the co-pays… This is normally the time that I would be lining up our kids’ activities for spring, but I’ve held off registering, and watched classes fill up in the meantime.
“Our two youngest children, ages 8 and 10, have their birthdays this week, which we usually celebrate with an overnight trip. We were forced to call that off, since my husband’s status as an essential employee means he’s not permitted to use his scheduled time off.
“While missing a birthday getaway is pretty minor in the whole scheme of things, these rules apply across the board, whether it’s a surgical procedure or a court date or other major life event, using vacation or sick time is off the table.
“These steps we’ve taken to conserve our cash will only buy us so much time… We will be forced to choose between my husband’s long career in public service to his country, and meeting the basic needs of our family… and hundreds of thousands of other federal employees will be in the same position, some sooner rather than later.
“Having no idea when or how this will all end is the hardest part, because we don’t even know what we need to prepare for. It’s a challenge to avoid getting sucked into obsessively following the news… and reading the online comments is absolutely demoralizing, as there are always people ready to offer their opinions on how useless federal employees are or that they just should have saved more money.
“A sizable portion of the United States doesn’t seem to realize that the country is still running smoothly only thanks to the willingness of federal employees to work (some in dangerous jobs) without a paycheck.
“To subject the hard-working Americans who serve in our government to this kind of uncertainty and fear is unconscionable. It’s demoralizing to know that our nation’s leaders are content to hold the livelihoods of federal employees hostage.
“I’ll admit that I’m biased, but I feel strongly that our elected officials have a moral responsibility to end this shutdown and stop using federal employees and their families as pawns in a game of political brinksmanship.”
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