The day before the government shut down in 2013, my boss gathered the entire department for an impromptu meeting. My co-workers and I made a circle of crossed-armed bodies and frowning, silent mouths as we listened to our director read us the talking points on what we should do if the House of Representatives failed to appropriate funds for fiscal year 2014. Everyone circled around the question no one knew the answer to: Would we get paid if the government shut down?
Our director became so repetitious that she sounded like a parrot: “I don’t know. I know as much as you to do. I don’t know. I know as much as you do.” She handed us packets of information to prepare for the worst: brochures on how to apply for unemployment benefits, how to check operating status, resources for health insurance coverage, a fact-sheet on why the government was closing in the first place. I went home with a thick stack of paperwork full of applications and the prospect of financial disaster for my fragile little family.
I came home to our babysitter rocking my two infant sons as they napped inside their Rock ‘n Plays. It had only been two months since we hired her, and I was about to tell her that her new job may have to end, at least temporarily. Although she was not a government employee, the shutdown affected her too — if I wasn’t getting paid, she wasn’t getting paid.
Unlike wildly inaccurate perceptions of us, federal employees do not work cushy jobs. Many of us are one paycheck away from homelessness. But a government shutdown doesn’t just affect federal workers like my me and my husband. It affects thousands of workers who depend on the salaries paid to federal employees to sustain themselves — such as child care workers, cab drivers, and restaurant workers. When the government shuts down, federal employees are not the only ones who reap the consequences.
When the government shut down, we couldn’t pay our nanny
My family was in a precarious situation in October, 2013. I had recently returned to work full time after giving birth to severely premature twins. My boys came home with expensive medical needs that required the assistance of insurance and a steady paycheck.
Because babies born that prematurely are more susceptible to life-threatening respiratory illnesses, daycare was not an option. We decided to hire a nanny to care for them in our house. In the months before that, we were paying the mortgage on our home and a vacant condominium investment property with my husband’s salary and the little money I earned after decreasing my hours. My husband’s salary is lower than mine, and we were scraping by with barely enough to pay our bills when we were furloughed.
After the shutdown, I had no idea what to expect. The political climate seemed too volatile for predictions. Watching the news only stressed me out — I shut out the pundits, even refusing to discuss what was happening with my parents and in-laws. My co-workers and I hardly spoke about the actual reasons for the furlough. Rather, we complained about the personal impact, lamenting over how we felt like the children of a divorced marriage, doomed to bear the burden of our parents’ mistakes.
On October 1, the government officially shut down. Our last paycheck was September 28 and our next payday would’ve been October 12. We had no idea how long we would be without money. When the last day in Congress came and went without a resolution to the appropriations bill, my husband and I had to make some tough decisions.
Not knowing how long we would be broke, we decided to forego paying the mortgage on the investment condo. Despite having two preemies in need of medical care, we did not sign up for Cobra Insurance, a temporary medical insurance option should our federal policy lapse during the shutdown because of no payment. We just could not afford the premium. Instead, we hoped for a short furlough and no medical emergencies. There was no back-up plan.
We also could not afford to pay the nanny. She was 23 and lived in an apartment complex down the street from our house. She worked for us full time, coming from a similar gig near her hometown in rural Maryland. It took us a month to find her after interviewing at least six or seven candidates who, for one reason or another, we did not feel confident leaving our newborn, premature babies with or who were demanding more money per hour than we could afford. We looked into the daycare facility on the first floor of my office building before the boys were born and quickly ruled them out due to the $3,000 per month tuition, more than our mortgage and car payment combined.
Prior to the furlough, it never occurred to me to think about what would happen to her if we weren’t able to pay her. When we told her, she seemed disappointed. But I was so consumed by my own problems, that I didn’t think to ask her what she would do for money. I promised her that she would be paid as soon as we were and sent her home for a forced and unwanted vacation.
When federal workers don’t get paid, it affects the non-government workforce too
When the federal government shuts down, it isn’t just us feds who were directly impacted by the furlough and bipartisan disagreements. It is our families, our communities, and those who rely on our salaries to make their own ends meet.
Living in the Washington DC, area, where the local industry is the federal government, I see the impact of the shut down everywhere. Decreased traffic is nice, but the deserted highways also reflect just how many people are forced to stay home. Friends who work in busy restaurants aren’t getting the shifts or tips they would normally earn from workers who stop in for lunch or happy hour. Cab drivers also lose customers. Although business is slow throughout the region, many shops rally, offering free lunch or discounts to federal employees.
The closure ended October 17, 2013, after a total of 16 work days. I was lucky; I collected back pay. Many janitors, cafeteria employees, and other individuals may not have received back pay — specifically, those who are employed through companies with government contracts not deemed vital to federal operations or those whose salaries were not included under the appropriations bill.
Still, we experienced financial setbacks from not receiving a paycheck for almost 30 days that we struggled to fix months later. To avoid foreclosure on the condo, we had to pay multiple mortgage payments on the unit at one time in addition to covering the mortgage on our home. There were medical bills from our children’s NICU stay that went untouched. But most importantly, we needed our babysitter back.
The morning I returned to work, I called her to ask her to return. She said yes, then confided in me that she also was unable to make her rent last month. She had to borrow money from her parents to make ends meet.
I thought about how close my family was to financial disaster, how long it would take us to finally be out of the hole. The effect of that lost money trickled down to our nanny, and then ultimately to her parents, all of us taking on the brunt of our government’s inability to compromise.
Preparing for the worst as a government employee
Despite not being involved in the reason why the government closed, I still beat myself up over how it all could’ve been avoided and my complicity in a financial chain reaction. Maybe if we had saved more money before the boys were born, built a better cushion for ourselves, removed funds from our retirement plan, our babysitter could have made rent.
Maybe either my husband or I should have quit and stayed at home with the kids. Maybe if we lived in a less expensive part of the country, if I had decided to pursue a job in the private sector, or foregone unpaid leave those weeks before returning to work. Maybe, maybe, maybe.
Still, I realized all those personal maybes meant nothing to our nanny, to her parents, to the people who we owed money. When the government shuts down, every American is affected, regardless of whether they work directly for the federal government or not.
This time around, we are in a better position. Our boys are in kindergarten and no longer need daycare, however their aftercare program has offered to defer payments for parents who are federal workers. We sold our house last year and luckily have enough money in our savings to cover several missed paychecks.
This current shutdown has entered its third week with no end in immediate sight. I am privileged in many ways that other government employees are not because of what we earned from selling our house. If we didn’t have the foresight to sell our home when we did, then who knows what our situation would be today. I am trying to learn from my mistakes. I hope our elected officials will do the same.
TL Coleman is a writer, wife, mother, attorney, and writing instructor who freelances when the government shuts down. She resides in the DC metro area.