Sen. Mitt Romney, right, R-Utah, speaks with reporters in Ogden, Utah, on Jan. 18 after visiting with local officials to discuss how the four-week government shutdown is impacting federal employees.

Sen. Mitt Romney, right, R-Utah, speaks with reporters in Ogden, Utah, on Jan. 18 after visiting with local officials to discuss how the four-week government shutdown is impacting federal employees. Rick Bowmer/AP

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Shutdown Had Deep Financial and Mental Health Impact on IRS Workers, Study Finds

Researchers are examining the impact of the 35-day shutdown on a Utah community with a high concentration of federal employees.

Researchers studying a Utah community with a high concentration of International Revenue Service employees found that the partial government shutdown that ended in January significantly affected the financial and mental well-being of federal workers. 

Of the furloughed workers surveyed, more than 35% missed a rent or mortgage payment, 30% went to a food pantry, 72% experienced mental health issues, 42% wanted to make a career change and 65% were very or somewhat concerned about their finances post-shutdown. The most-used services by workers during the shutdown were food pantries, free meals at restaurants and skip-payment programs.

The initial results were first released in May; researchers now are gearing up for the next phase of the study this fall. 

Weber State University conducted the study on the impact of the shutdown, which occurred from Dec. 22, 2018, through Jan 25, to understand how it affected the approximately 5,000 IRS workers, local businesses and nonprofits in Ogden, Utah, located in Weber county. They also want to determine how to better prepare for any future shutdowns. 

“Furloughed employees, nonprofits, and businesses expressed gratitude at how the Northern Utah community rallied to support those affected by the shutdown. However, at the same time, many respondents noted that they felt more services were needed to meet financial, food, and health needs. In addition, information on how to access services could have been better communicated,” the researchers concluded. The 35-day shutdown, which was triggered when President Trump and Congress were unable to reach an agreement on border security funding, was the longest shutdown in U.S. history.   

The first phase of the survey-based study concluded in May 2019. The majority of the federal employees surveyed worked at IRS, with only a small percentage from the U.S. Forest Service. There was about an even split between respondents who were furloughed and those who had to work without pay (all workers were eventually paid after the shutdown ended). Researchers noted that results are not statistically significant since, despite their recruitment efforts, they did not reach a representative sample. Nonetheless, the results offer new insights about the shutdown and have prompted further areas of inquiry. 

Katharine French-Fuller, director of research at the Center for Community Engaged Learning at Weber State University, told Government Executive her main takeaway was that while the shutdown did have a financial impact in the community, “the mental health of the workers and the families suffered I think more than we thought about.” 

She noted the morale of federal employees needs more attention going forward. “A lot of people articulated that they felt like they were pawns; that they didn’t feel respected by government officials, but also fellow citizens,” French-Fuller said. 

In the open-ended response portion of the survey, an employee wrote, “We are USA citizens that have families to support. Often we hear we deserve it, because we work for IRS. We are doing a job that is dictated by Congress. It is surprising how people seem to want others to hurt. It is sort of sickening.”

Another employee described going back to work during tax season: “With a month of catch up at my busiest season, it is so stressful. This is the first time in 15 years I am exhausted after work and do not want to go in the mornings. That was never the case before.”

A survey by the Government Business Council, the research arm of Government Executive, in late December 2018 found that about 71% of federal workers nationwide opposed the shutdown. This finding contradicted Trump’s claim that federal employees support construction of a wall on the southwest border, so therefore they supported the shutdown.

During the next phase of the study, researchers will dig deeper into the many questions raised by the initial study by conducting focus groups. They will explore why people didn’t seek certain services such as mental health care or food assistance and what, if anything, they knew about those options. 

Researchers will also see if the survey respondents who said they wanted to leave the federal workforce actually did. “If not for the fact that I have 24 years invested I would leave federal service. We have been made us targets far too often. You can only beat the house [sic] so many times before his spirit is broken,” wrote an employee in the survey. 

One respondent, who started working for IRS right before the shutdown, wrote, “Because of the stress of the shutdown and the chaos and disorganized ramping back up, I missed out on enrolling in some critical benefits that I should be receiving. I am probably going to be quitting so I can get these benefits.”

French-Fuller said the researchers want to create a resource guide to list important services and contacts in the event of a future shutdown or mass layoff.