Stories of the government shutdown

The recent government shutdown has been the longest, and likely most catastrophic, in American history. 800,000 federal workers have remained furloughed for close to a month. Tens of thousands have been called back to the government to work without pay. Stories of misfortune abound: DC food banks report that they are close to running out of supplies trying to feed unemployed federal workers; veterans organizations decried the perilous financial situation the shutdown placed on many former soldiers; hundreds of thousands of ordinary citizens were delayed on Medicare, passport, and social security card applications. Being in the heart of DC, the government shutdown hits close to home financially and psychologically for many Wilson families. Here are some of their stories:


Isabella, Department of Justice

Isabella, whose name has been changed to preserve confidentiality, works at the Department of Justice. While some people in her office must report to work without pay, others, like her, are furloughed. The shutdown has caused financial hardship on her and her family, as she is a single parent, and has no other income to rely on.

“I have been forced to make financial arrangements to deal with the shutdown being in unpaid status,” she said. “I made arrangements for several of my accounts to be deferred through the justice credit union, however, there are other accounts that cannot be deferred.” If the shutdown continues into March, she will not be able to support her family and will have to obtain a loan to continue floating.

Isabella does not believe that shutdowns are at all justified as a political tactic. “It is tantamount to Congress failing to do its job, yet it allows Congress to continue receiving paychecks while at the same time penalizing innocent people who are being used as pawns.” Isabella’s daughter says she has definitely felt the stress the shutdown has placed on their family. “Because we’re critically low on money, I have to cut down on tutoring, and food. I can’t go on school trips because we don’t have the money,” she said. 


Megan, Federal Agency

Megan, whose name has been changed and whose agency has been concealed to preserve confidentiality, is a single parent of two. She survived several rounds of layoffs in the private sector before she sought greater job security and began working in a federal agency in 1995.

Just days later, Republicans shut down the government over Bill Clinton’s plan to fund Medicare, education, and environmental programs. “The 1995 shutdown was something of a shock and taught me right away that I need to set aside a cushion of money for the unknown, which I have done,” she said. Her initial efforts to save money have ensured the shutdown doesn’t cause significant financial problems, though the whole family is cutting down on excess spending.

“Our cushion will run out at some point and I’ll have to consider other options. Right now, the kids are ‘furloughed’ too—they’re not getting an allowance until I get paid,” she said. “It is very stressful not knowing when I’ll work or be paid again. I suppose it’s an opportunity to teach frugal living, defining what are necessities and what are luxuries which we must forgo for now. It is hard to plan anything, not knowing when I’ll need to be back at work and when/if I’ll be paid,” Megan continued. “I have had time to read a couple of novels: Cormac McCarthy’s ‘The Road’—scrounging for canned goods in an ashen post-Apocalyptic landscape—and Rohindra Mistry’s ‘A Fine Balance’—maintaining a balance between hope and despair in the face of overwhelming economic and political forces in post-independence India. These stories help put things in perspective.” 


Taleeta Dixon, Homeland Security Accountant

Taleeta Dixon is an accountant at a company that works for the Department of Homeland Security’s finance sectors on any projects involving computers and software. Though some of her coworkers are dubbed “essential employees” and are still at work, Dixon is furloughed and, as a contractor, will not receive back pay. However, there is a bill pending to change that, but it has not passed yet and there is no guarantee that it will. As of now, the shutdown has not placed hardship on the Dixon family. “Because I’m married, you know, we have two incomes in the home,” Dixon explained. Each year, Dixon works part-time for Liberty Tax. As a result of the shutdown, she has more free time and has been able to pick up more shifts, though she has not been working outrageous hours. “We try to be smart about our money and how we spend it, so I’m not about to work myself to death,” she said. Still, Dixon stated that if the shutdown were to continue much longer, she would find a job with a similar company whose employees are not furloughed. “I would still be an accountant, I would just look for another job with another company that’s not under furlough,” she explained. According to Dixon, shutdowns are never justified as a political tactic. “I don’t understand…you want 5.7 billion for a wall that’s not going to stop anything…It doesn’t make any sense.” 


Lenna Aoki, General Counsel to Senator Brian Schatz of Hawaii

For many government workers, the shutdown is a lull in the hubbub of busy careers. For Lenna Aoki, the shutdown is just the opposite. Aoki serves as the General Counsel to Senator Brian Schatz and during the shutdown, she is responsible for monitoring impacts and finding ways to help Schatz’s constituents. “Hawaii has a large population of federal workers in comparison to the total population of the state and Senator Schatz has taken a leadership role in working on legislation to help federal employees during the shutdown,” she said. As Aoki is classified as an essential employee, she has never been furloughed during a shutdown. “Working without pay was difficult financially as well as psychologically as I was always concerned that I might not get paid for my work,” she said. According to Aoki, shutdowns are never justified as a political tactic. “First, the hardships faced by unpaid federal workers and their families are unfair and unconscionable. And from security issues to economic development to transportation safety to health care and social services to the degradation of our national parks—the shutdown is causing chaos, disruptions, and uncertainty for everyone,” Aoki added.


Chris Hardee, Department of Justice

Chris Hardee is the Chief of the Office of Law & Policy in the National Security Division of the Department of Justice. Almost everyone in his office is furloughed, but he and some other supervisors and attorneys go into the office to deal with urgent matters. Working without the funding of Congress, except in instances where the work is absolutely necessary for safety, is illegal under the Antideficiency Act. Anyone who is required to work for critical matters is entitled to back pay. Though Hardee has been able to manage not being paid, he notes this is not the case for everyone. “Fortunately, my family is able to manage not receiving my paycheck.  For others, such as younger attorneys dealing with law school debt and other financial obligations, it could be more difficult,” he said. Hardee notes that the government is dependent on a budget passed by Congress, which the President has the right to veto. However, he places emphasis on the intent behind these actions. “Congress could act irresponsibly and not pass such a law for partisan reasons. The President could act irresponsibly and veto a funding law for partisan political reasons. You must look at each case to judge their actions,” he said.


Katherine, Environmental Protection Agency

Katherine, whose name has been changed to preserve confidentiality, has worked for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for years, and is glad to be off the job whether she gets paid or not. “The goal of the Trump administration is to weaken or get rid of environmental regulations, in part by ignoring science,” she said. “It is stressful to go to work every day to help to undo or weaken environmental regulations or to issue new ones that don’t protect public health and the environment.”  Her frustration with having to work to reduce protections on the environment is only amplified by the shutdown, which she describes as evidence of “the constant disregard for federal employees by certain politicians and their use of the people who work for the government as political leverage.” Katherine is conditioned for the shutdown as the embattled EPA often faces funding shortages. “Far worse than the periodic shutdowns were the dramatic cuts to the EPA’s budget during the Obama administration,” Katherine said. “Congress slashed the EPA’s budget year after year and EPA employees had to take three weeks of leave without pay as a result.” While she is happy to temporarily relinquish her role as the environmental un-protector, Katherine sympathizes with the thousands of federal employees who need employment to stay economically solvent.


Frank Gorman, Chief of Staff of the Consumer Protection Bureau

Gorman is considered an “expected employee,” meaning he continues to do a limited amount of work during the shutdown. While his position guarantees pay, and he has enough money saved to stay financially secure during the shutdown, a government closure for ‘weeks or even months’ (as Trump vowed) would eventually cause financial stress. Gorman’s main concern is not his own situation, but that of his younger attorneys. “Many of my colleagues and others throughout the government are not so lucky and will have to borrow money, fall behind on bills, or raid their retirement accounts, at significant long term cost,” he said. The shutdown delays Gorman’s efforts to protect American consumers. “Because of the shutdown, more than 60 cases in active federal court litigation are delayed, meaning that it will take longer to get relief for injured consumers.  All of our investigations are suspended, including the high-profile, public investigation of Facebook,” said Gorman. “Consumers are not able to file complaints about fraud, robocalls, identity theft, or other consumer protection issues. We are a tremendously effective Agency, returning far more to taxpaying consumers through our consumer protection redress program than we cost. Every day we are shut down costs American consumers money.”