Mark Boster / MCT)
It might seem like it was just a paid vacation for the 500,000 federal workers on furlough.
They were off work for half the month and will get back pay now that the government is open again.
But for many rank-and-file employees who live paycheck to paycheck, the shutdown has caused a massive financial headache. Some say their savings have been wiped out after a three-year pay freeze and a previous round of furloughs during the summer.
The nation’s ideological battle over health care and spending hit these workers in the pocketbook. They’ve falling behind on rent, car payments, credit-card debt and other bills.
“I am in survival mode,” Timothy Maimone, a furloughed quality assurance specialist for the Department of Defense, said two weeks into the shutdown. “I am barely squeaking by right now.”
The 51-year-old Mission Viejo, Calif., resident said he earns just enough to cover the mortgage on his house, pay bills and take care of his 7-year-old son.
But the first government shutdown in nearly two decades left him stressed and angry about money.
A single dad with no savings, he’s prioritizing bills. He’s already missed his monthly credit card payment and is late on the mortgage. He’s stopped paying the trash bill and only shelled out the minimum to keep the water on. And he’s holding off on buying clothes for his son, Salvatore. .
The pain has spread to the private sector, too, when many companies with government contracts started sending workers home.
The federal government said it had about 2.15 million people, excluding postal workers unaffected by the shutdown, on its payroll in August.
“They are middle-class Americans,” said Colleen Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, which represents about 150,000 federal workers.
“They are frightened about what this means to their families. Many are the sole supporters of their families.”
Kelley’s union represents workers from 31 federal agencies and departments such as the Treasury and Homeland Security. She said about 40 percent of the union’s members take home a salary less than $50,000 a year.
“There are tens of thousands of workers who don’t have backup plans or a support system,” she said.
Even those who do have savings were counting their pennies.
Malcolm Gettmann, 59, and his wife were both furloughed from their jobs at the Internal Revenue Service in San Diego. Like many other furloughed workers, the pair filed for unemployment benefits and are scrambling to tighten their belts.
The couple, who have some savings, said they don’t plan to make big purchases soon. Instead, Gettmann said, during the furlough they meticulously planned meals and bought only those groceries that were on sale. There was just enough to cover their $1,600 mortgage payment and expenses until the third week of November.
But government workers might be getting some relief on their bills.
Major banks such as Wells Fargo & Co. and PNC Bank say they’re working with customers individually.
Others, such as TD Bank, are offering no-interest payday loans.
On its website, JPMorgan Chase & Co. said it was ready to help on “financial challenges that might arise — much like we worked with our customers through Hurricane Sandy and tornadoes in Oklahoma.”
Many credit unions have gone even further to help.
Navy Federal Credit Union, the largest credit union in the U.S., is expediting approval on raising credit card limits and letting members withdraw from certificates of deposit without penalties. Financial services firm USAA is offering payment deferrals and refunding some fees on credit cards and other services.
Brad Smith, the vice president of strategic development at Pacific Marine Credit Union in Oceanside, Calif., worked at another credit union during the 26-day shutdown in 1995 and 1996. He said workers suffered more this time.
“There was a much different environment during the Clinton era. Back then it was unprecedented,” he said. “Now the government has a track record with furloughs and the sequester. It seems like every time you turn around, they want to run off the edge of a cliff.”