Caught in the shutdown, U.S. workers in California and elsewhere brace for missing paychecks

Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon (D-Pa.) speaks during a federal workers union demonstration against the partial government shutdown at Independence Hall in Philadelphia.
(Matt Rourke / Associated Press)

Leisyka Parrott of Arcata, Calif., is scouring secondhand shops for a pair of size 15 basketball shoes for her 13-year-old son.

The single mother was furloughed from her job with the Bureau of Land Management in late December as part of the partial government shutdown. Her paycheck won’t come this week, and she’s trying to pinch pennies where she can.

Parrott went light this year on Christmas presents, canceled a surgery she was supposed to have next week because she can’t afford the deductible, and is burning wood rather than using the furnace. She’s talked with her landlord about paying the February rent late and has applied for unemployment.


But, she says, explaining to a child why the shutdown is happening and why she can’t afford new basketball shoes is heartbreaking.

“I try to keep a positive attitude and try not to freak out. I just go on walks and watch the news, a lot,” Parrott said. “That job is really what keeps it all together for us. It’s not that there is a lot of places to cut corners.”

Governing Magazine estimates that 41,478 Californians work for one of the closed federal departments and agencies, and are currently either furloughed or working without pay, a substantial slice of the 800,000 federal employees affected by the shutdown.

Despite impressions by some that the shutdown mostly affects the Beltway elite, two-thirds of federal workers are located outside of Washington. California — with about 144,000 federal employees — is home to more than any other state or D.C.

As the government shutdown drags on for a third week, federal employee unions are becoming more vocal about how it is affecting the hundreds of thousands of workers across nine federal departments.

“This is the week when people are going to start really, really feeling the effect,” said Jacque Simon, policy director for the American Federation of Government Employees. “They’ve got bills to pay and families to support and they are not going to be able to do it.”


If the shutdown ends by Friday, some of the shuttered agencies could scramble to quickly get paychecks to affected federal employees. But Simon said there is no streamlined payroll processing system for the federal government and it’s unclear how many checks could be issued in time.

Some federal employees said they’ve been told that unless the government opens by midweek, the soonest they could get a paycheck is Jan. 25.

And there’s no sign that Trump or Democrats in Congress are close to resolving their standoff over funding for a wall along the southern border. Trump said he would not sign any spending bills to reopen the closed agencies unless they included more than $5 billion for the wall.

In the past, Congress has approved back pay for affected workers when the government opens. But the federal workers and their family members who spoke to the Los Angeles Times said that doesn’t cover late fees for missed payments or the potential dings to their credit reports, and it doesn’t help with immediate expenses such as prescriptions, tuition, gas or childcare that they can’t avoid in the meantime.

At least two federal employee unions have already filed lawsuits alleging the administration is violating the Fair Labor Standards Act by requiring federal employees to work without pay.

HUD investigator Jamie Rodny of Aliso Viejo, said the paycheck she should get this week would have gone to pay the mortgage. She’s at a loss for what to do.

“Where am I going to get another $3,000?” Rodny said on the verge of tears.

Rodny said she’s tried to restart her photography business, looked into being a Zoomba instructor or driving for Uber. Her parents have offered to help pay for her toddler’s daycare, but they can’t cover the mortgage.

Rodny tried filing for unemployment, but it requires her to be actively looking for another job. Under HUD ethics rules, she could be fired for not getting potential jobs first cleared for conflict of interest and the department that does that is closed.

Losing her job at HUD would mean she would no longer qualify for the public-service loan forgiveness program that will one day mean her law school bills are wiped clean.

She is considering a GoFundMe page or a private loan. If she does, Rodny would be among the hundreds of people who have created GoFundMe pages to seek strangers’ help to pay their bills during the shutdown.

“I find it very humiliating, but if it’s between us being able to pay for our mortgage or not, I’m going to have to be OK with being humiliated. That’s what the president is doing to me. That’s what my boss is doing to me,” Rodny said.

Much has been publicized about national parks and the heaps of trash and feces tourists are leaving behind. The White House has moved to mitigate the shutdown’s effect on the average American where it can, such as recalling thousands of furloughed IRS workers to ensure tax filers get speedy tax returns. But several federal workers said it doesn’t feel to them as if people recognize how the shutdown is affecting the workers in their communities.

“Even my own father-in-law was not aware or doesn’t comprehend that this is happening to us,” Rodny said. “Eight hundred thousand families are being pushed to the brink here.”

Robyn Salzman said Facebook friends were surprised to learn over the weekend that her husband, who works for the Federal Aviation Administration in Washington, D.C., is among the 420,000 workers considered integral for safety and is required to work without pay while the agency is closed.

“There are people who have no idea what is happening right now,” Salzman said.

The couple weathered the 16-day shutdown under President Obama in 2013 and have savings to cover a month or two of expenses, Salzman said, but she took the president at his word Friday that he’s willing to keep the shutdown going for months, or years, if he has to in order to get funding for the border wall.

“It really hit after [that comment]: This is real now,” Salzman said.

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