As the government shutdown drags on, workers’ hardship grows—and soon could become a political break point.
On Friday, the 35th day of the longest government shutdown in U.S. history, 800,000 federal employees will miss a second paycheck, ratcheting up the individual impact of the partial government shutdown. Food banks from the capital to Kansas that have served a growing trickle of federal workers anticipate a jump in those needing help.
An air-traffic controller in Chattanooga, Tennessee, says his family has been doing all right thanks to creditors who are willing to delay payments, but he worries about expenses that can’t be postponed, such as food for his wife and their seven children. “Our grocery bill with nine people in the household is no joke,” said Joe Manley, who’s been working without pay since the shutdown began on December 22.
Manley warned that the growing “sick-out” among Transportation Security Administration (TSA) screeners might spread to air-traffic controllers as they seek outside work to pay their bills. Growing dysfunction at places such as airports could quickly turn the personal pain felt by workers into public pain—and, by extension, political pain, as people start calling their members of Congress.
Only 15 percent of civilian full-time federal employees live in the Washington, D.C., region, so representatives and senators from across the country could hear from increasingly anxious constituents well beyond the Beltway. According to the federal Office of Personnel Management, nearly 40,000 federal workers live in Alabama, about 90,000 in the battleground state of Florida, and more than 130,000 in Texas, whose Republican representatives hold leadership posts in both houses of Congress. At his first town hall as a senator, Mitt Romney got nervous questions from some of Utah’s 26,000 government employees. A federal union on Wednesday began daily demonstrations at the Senate’s Hart office building.
By any measure, the shutdown is already causing wide-ranging damage. Businesses must consider whether to go ahead with initial public offerings without approval by regulators, The Wall Street Journal reported this week. Tax refunds could be delayed as IRS employees are allowed to miss work because of financial hardship. Stores around the country have lost revenue because they can’t accept food-stamp payments; as PBS explained last week, about 2,500 retailers have seen a lapse in their authorization to accept payment by debit-style EBT cards.
Most visibly for the broader public, the TSA “sick-out” results in closed security lines and airport delays. Absentee rates hit a high of 10 percent on Sunday, about three times as high as the typical level at this point last year. The agency has sent out a renewed plea for agents willing to temporarily shift to another city to reinforce the most strained airports, CNN reported. The shutdown’s lost productivity and ripple effects reduce economic growth by 0.13 percent each week, according to President Donald Trump’s own economists. Since Congress has already promised back pay to federal employees (but not contractors) regardless of whether they have to work during the shutdown, that amounts to $8 million to $12 million every hour in pay for work not done, PolitiFact calculated. But the impact has not yet inflicted serious pain on the broader public. A slightly longer TSA line isn’t comparable to hundreds of canceled flights or, worse, a deadly mishap.
Humans tend to ignore gradual changes, like the proverbial frog in a pot of slowly heated water (see: climate change, national debt, online privacy). With the president and House Democratic leaders dug into mutually exclusive positions, slow pain hasn’t yet changed the political calculus. However, the second round of missed payments means a rising tide of senseless struggle.
A Department of Homeland Security employee who lives in Northern Virginia says the prospect of a full month without pay forced her and her husband, another civilian federal worker, to apply for unemployment benefits, food stamps, and free school lunches for their two children. “The next missed paycheck will be a game-changer for us,” she said in an email Tuesday. “If the government opened last week, we would not have applied for assistance.” The family was low on cash savings because they had recently renovated their basement so her disabled mother could live with them. Both of their kids have special needs and receive private therapy outside of school, but tight finances forced the family to decide which child could skip that therapy during the shutdown.
A second missed paycheck doesn’t just double the hardship imposed by a single skipped payday. Marty Reid, a certified financial planner in Charlotte, North Carolina, said that while people should keep an emergency fund with enough cash to cover at least three months of essential expenses, most families don’t have that level of reserves, even if they’re not typically living paycheck to paycheck. “Even with households that have higher incomes, oftentimes they simply don’t have the cash reserve that they should,” he said. The publicity surrounding the shutdown means creditors are likely to allow postponed payments for mortgages or auto loans. A typical family may struggle with more than a single missed paycheck, tapping into retirement savings—but that means they lose out on long-term growth and risk taxes as high as 50 percent on withdrawals, Reid warned. He added that the shutdown’s timing could accelerate interest penalties for families who put holiday purchases on their credit cards.
Food banks are gearing up for an increased need. Food for Others, a Northern Virginia nonprofit, started seeing more and more new faces ahead of the first missed payday, on January 11. “We started receiving phone calls and inquiries from households needing food toward the end of the second week in January,” said Annie Turner, the organization’s executive director, in an email. “We anticipate those numbers to keep growing as more paychecks are missed.” The food bank, which kept a count of clients with government IDs, said the shutdown caused a 7 percent jump in demand in the first three weeks of this year.
Food pantries far beyond the Washington area are seeing federal workers as first-time clients. A furloughed fed went to Just Food in Lawrence, Kansas, for free groceries; the woman decided to use her unexpected free time to volunteer with the organization, said Elizabeth Keever, the executive director. The food bank is serving about six to 10 new clients a day because of the shutdown, Keever said, including at least one TSA agent. The nonprofit has already exceeded its January food budget, and she anticipates more need the longer the shutdown continues. “We’re going to see more and more as the second round of no-checks come in,” she said.
Perhaps the second no-pay payday will be a tipping point for centrist members of the Senate, which has largely stayed on the sidelines during the battle between Trump and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. The chamber is scheduled to vote on two bills Thursday: the president’s package, which temporarily protects some undocumented immigrants in exchange for wall funding, and a short-term spending bill that would fund the government for about three weeks. Folded into the GOP proposal is a provision that Democrats find toxic, which would require Central American children to apply for asylum from within their home countries.
Neither proposal has much chance of getting the 60 required votes, but the two bills could provide a starting point for negotiations in the Senate, where members have more independence from their party leaders than in the House. As Trump and Pelosi fight over the State of the Union address, a second missed paycheck for thousands of constituents won’t change the political calculus overnight, but it might increase the pressure on senators to come up with a compromise.