Volunteers sign in federal workers outside Phoenix Indian Medical Center wanting to pick up food bank donations on Friday, Jan. 18.

Volunteers sign in federal workers outside Phoenix Indian Medical Center wanting to pick up food bank donations on Friday, Jan. 18. Terry Tang/AP

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Shutdown Stretched Services of Federal Employee Charity

Corporate donations replenished the cash available to low-income agency staff.

Among the less-visible impacts of the 35-day partial government shutdown was the exhaustion—and then replenishment—of donations to the Federal Employee Education and Assistance Fund.

The Alexandria-Va.,-based nonprofit, which since 1986 has worked as “the only independent, national charity for federal employees and by federal employees,” over the past six weeks saw a major uptick in inquiries from desperate government workers. “Normally our website gets probably 15,000 hits a month,” Joyce Warner, the group’s executive director, told Government Executive on Monday. “In January we’re at 90,000 and it’s not even the end of the month.”

“A lot of the people we’re hearing from don’t have gas to get to work, or are out of grocery money,” she added.

The nonprofit’s fund supplying the $100 “shutdown grants” available to federal employees making less than $35,000 (later raised to $49,999), however, was emptied. So the group “gave out a bunch of money, but then had to pause,” Warner said.

After the charity's monies were replenished by big donations from GEICO and Blue Cross, FEEA then brought in seven temporary staffers (one of whom was a furloughed federal employee).

“While this small grant does not replace missing pay, FEEA hopes it will help feds with things like feeding their families or paying commuting costs,” the grant notice said.

The Bill Bransford Helping Hands Fund program was funded initially by funds given in memory of the late federal employee attorney William Bransford, who served on FEEA’s board.

FEEA during the shutdown also continued its emergency hardship loan program with no fees or interest.

FEEA has a separate grant program open to members of the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association who are furloughed or working in excepted status. Thomas Burger, the FEAA national treasurer who is also executive director of the Professional Managers Association, told Government Executive last week that the managers association was giving out $100 gift certificates to Wal-Mart to low-income federal employees. But after 500 applications came in one day, the funds were “wiped out.”

On Jan. 22, GEICO announced its $25,000 contribution to FEEA.

“GEICO has a long history of serving government employees and their families,” said Bill Roberts, the insurer’s president and CEO. “We’re also offering alternative payment schedules and/or deferred payments for those impacted. For those policyholders who have been affected, we’re here to help make it a little easier.”

On Jan. 25, the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association and CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield announced a $2 million gift to FEEA. “For nearly six decades,” said William Breskin, senior vice president of the health insurer’s federal employee program, the company’s Federal Employee Program “has been a steadfast partner to federal workers and their families, providing the security and stability that comes with health insurance, and helping them achieve good health and well-being.”

Other contributions came from Netflix and GoFundMe. “We wish we could help the 800,000 people” either furloughed or working without pay during the shutdown, Warner said. “But we have to start with the lowest income—it’s most dangerous for those folks.”

Over the years, the federal employees charity has made the most impact “during great tragedies,” Warner said, mentioning the 1990s Oklahoma City bombing and the terrorist attacks on U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, along with natural disasters.

“We’re still working with some of the 9/11 kids who lost their parents” in 2001, she added. The group does “run-of-the-mill information programs” on loans for funerals or illnesses, and gives merit-based college scholarships yearly. “Obviously, when a national tragedy strikes like a shutdown,” she said, “That’s when we’re most heard about.”