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5 reasons why this shutdown is worse for federal workers

Politicians have argued that the current government shutdown is less disruptive than past shutdowns because just nine of 15 cabinet agencies — and approximately 15 percent of federal civilian workers — have been affected.

But this still leaves some 800,000 federal workers unsure of when they will get another paycheck, and an unknown number of federal contractors, who work for private companies but are paid to complete specific projects by the government, with no pay and without any indication it will ever be made up.

The PBS NewsHour reached out to dozens of those workers and contractors, and many said that for them, this shutdown is actually worse than past shutdowns. Below are quotes from some of the people we interviewed. We verified their identities but in some cases allowed them to remain anonymous, or only identified them by their social media handles, because they fear reprisals at work for speaking with the media.

Most Americans live paycheck-to-paycheck right now (and have sizable debt)

Even as the economy booms, studies show that most U.S. workers, including federal workers have little-to-no financial room to spare. The employment company CareerBuilder.com reported last year that 78 percent of American workers it surveyed had recently lived paycheck-to-paycheck, with nearly half of those responding that they “always” or “usually” live paycheck-to-paycheck. At the same time, Americans have racked up an average of $8,200 in credit card debt, according to one analysis. That nears the level of red ink last seen during the Great Recession. The problem has been compounded by rising interest rates, which make debt more costly.

And many don’t have a cushion to help pay off their debt; Americans’ savings rate has plummeted in the past three years.

  • “I know others without savings who are paycheck to paycheck. I can last a little while. You spend time building reserves that you have. It just makes me so angry that I’m being forced to take away from that reserve. [If we miss a paycheck] the next mortgage will come straight from savings. So I’m already looking around [for a temporary job]. I used to wait tables, maybe I’ll do that for a few weeks.” — Ricky, a federal contractor who works in IT. He’s the sole provider for his wife and two children and, starting this past Monday, he has been without pay. He does not expect to receive back pay when the shutdown ends.
  • “People are like ‘It must be great!’ And I’m like ‘No! I’m really worried my landlord will not be happy when I can’t pay my exorbitant D.C. rent because I took a low-paying [government] fellowship.’ My husband is a veteran and we joke – but it’s true – that people who work for the federal government are here for service reasons.”— Ashley Miller, a furloughed federal worker who moved for her current government fellowship. She and her husband used much of their savings to make the move.

The timing is terrible for health insurance

Because the shutdown is hitting as a new year begins, federal workers and contractors face potential salary loss at the same time as their health insurance resets. That means if they have a medical problem, they’ll be on tap to pay their full deductible before their health insurance starts paying for significant portions of their medical bills. In addition, many federal contractors have high deductible health plans (HDHPs) and will face thousands of dollars in deductible and co-pay costs before health insurance has to step up significantly. One piece of good news for federal workers: their health insurance will not lapse. The government will pay the full premium costs during the shutdown and take out employee contributions after the shutdown ends.

  • “Come Jan. 1, I have a brand new $3,500 family deductible to meet for doctors visits and my husband’s medication… and no form letter from [the Office of Personnel Management] is going to convince Blue Cross to defer those payments.” — @Arrow1, a federal contractor in Denver who is going through his first significant government shutdown.

The shutdown came during the period of the year with the highest concentration of federal holidays. And, for now, all of that holiday pay was wiped out

Many outside the federal workforce thought the effects of the shutdown were mitigated because it went into effect around three federal holidays: Dec. 24, Dec. 25 and Jan. 1. But in reality, once the shutdown began, all pay — including holiday pay — was frozen for affected agencies. Until a deal is reached, workers who thought they were taking paid time off for Christmas or New Year’s are actually at risk of receiving no pay on any of those days. Once the shutdown ends, this could be rectified easily by Congress approving back pay. But in the meantime, it adds to a sense of instability for workers who tried to plan ahead.

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 02: Trash lays on the grounds of the National Mall as the partial shutdown of the U.S. government goes into the 12th day, on January 2, 2019 in Washington, DC. With the new congress scheduled to start on January 3, 2019, Congressional Democrats and Republicans have not come to a bipartisan solution to President Donald Trump's demands for more money to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Trash lays on the grounds of the National Mall as the partial shutdown of the U.S. government goes into the 12th day, on January 2, 2019 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

  • “[My husband] was sent an email that stated that he could not use his annual leave for our holiday time off… They also said holiday would not be paid for 24, 26, and Jan 1, even if the office is closed for the day off. So that’s 3 less paid days on a paycheck.” — Whitney, wife of a federal law enforcement employee in Virginia who is considered essential and working without a guaranteed paycheck or holiday pay.

The political divide is worse than ever, and it’s raising new fears for workers

Political division isn’t new. Nor are government shutdowns. But the overlapping timing of a government shutdown during a moment of such intense partisanship is remarkable. According to a Pew Research Center survey, there is a 36-point gap between Republicans and Democrats around political values. (For example, if 70 percent of Democrats hold a value, on average, just 34 percent of Republicans agree, and vice versa.) That is more than twice as large as the divide in 1994, the year that preceded the longest government shutdown in history, at 21 days. Meantime, public trust in government is at a modern low. Add to that a president who campaigned on not being predictable and some government workers have started questioning if they’ll get paid back for lost time when the shutdown ends. Several federal workers told NewsHour their concerns over lost pay are also leading to broader fears: That officials running the government have lost any sense of fiscal responsibility — and that Americans who work outside of government have little sympathy for federal workers’ plight.

  • “We’ve gone through government shutdowns before. This is the first time we felt it would last a little longer and that there’s no guarantee we’d get pay.” — Maria Ortega, the wife of a longtime Department of Homeland Security employee who is considered an essential employee and currently working with no guarantee of pay.
  • “I don’t think we’ve had an administration like we have now. It bothers me such life-altering decisions are made so trivially. I think [we will get paid eventually]. But nothing’s certain with what’s going on now. With Republicans and Democrats before, there was a responsibility factor that isn’t there now.” — Jessica Reino, the wife of a federal worker who so far is unaffected but who fears that could change if the shutdown lengthens.
  • “Family members have hoped for shutdowns for one political reason or another despite knowing the immense personal toll it would have on me. When the shutdown happens, they provide no emotional support. Furloughed workers have to rely on each other for support.” — A furloughed Food and Drug Administration worker who asked not to be named.

One shutdown, two Congresses

Another unique quality of this shutdown: It’s the first to occur as one two-year session of Congress ends and another begins. It’s also the first shutdown to occur as one political party takes over control of a chamber of Congress. Years hence, this may make for a phenomenal piece of pub-night trivia. But right now the dynamic seems to have lengthened the crisis, as President Donald Trump and likely House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., have both used the moment to flex their political muscles in preparation for the next two years of fights.

  • “I’m not trying to sugarcoat this. It’s going to go until the next Congress.” — Tresha Taylor, a federal contractor who is losing pay during the shutdown and feels federal workers are scared to speak out about their anxiety.

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