Financially Struggling Government Workers Are Caught Up In Shutdown

Dec 28, 2018
Originally published on December 28, 2018 1:51 pm

A government job probably pays better and is more secure than one in the private sector, but for many federal workers, it hardly assures a good income.

The 800,000 federal workers who aren't being paid because of the partial government shutdown include many who struggle to make ends meet even during ordinary times.

"I only have about $1,000 in savings," says Brooke Cole, who is furloughed from her job at a Coast Guard Air Station in Port Angeles, Wash. "I have to pay my rent; I have a car payment, child care payments, student loan payments, utility payments, all sorts of fun stuff."

Federal government employees are paid according to their position on the General Schedule, the official pay classification system overseen by the Office of Personnel Management. Workers at the GS-1 level start out earning about $19,000 a year, which for a family of three would be about poverty level.

An employee at the other end of the federal pay scale (GS-15) can make as much as about $140,000, but, as of 2014, that classification included only about 4 percent of the federal workforce. About 1 in 8 U.S. government workers are at the GS-6 level or below, meaning they earn little more than $40,000 a year and probably less, even if their work is professional.

Among those workers is Paul Kiefer who examines tax returns for the IRS at its service center in Austin, Texas.

"I'm looking at everybody's return to make sure everything is correct," he says, "and if there's an error, I may have to correct that error." Even with that responsibility, however, Kiefer is paid at the GS-6 level, and his income is not sufficient to allow him to go long without a paycheck. He is currently on furlough.

I'm worried about whether or not I can make my credit card payment. - Paul Kiefer, furloughed federal employee in Austin, Texas.

"Right now, I'm worried about whether or not I can make my credit card payment, whether I can pay for the electricity, get any food, pay the rent, whether or not I'm going to be thrown out onto the street. It's that serious," he says.

Kiefer was also affected by the 2013 government shutdown. In that case, he eventually got back pay, but only because Congress authorized it.

Trump administration officials predict Congress will once again enact legislation to restore lost pay.

Possibility of eventual pay

"They might miss a pay period because the government is shut down, but in the end, even if they aren't working, Congress has decided to pay people for the whole time," White House economist Kevin Hassett told reporters on Wednesday. "So, in the end, it's really just a short-term problem, not a long-term problem."

Such reassurances do not apply, however, to government workers who are employed through a private contractor. The number of outsourced federal jobs has increased substantially in recent years, and contract employees who are not working during the government shutdown are unlikely to be paid for the time they are furloughed.

Almost 2 million workers employed by the federal government under contract earn less than $12 per hour, according to a 2013 study by Demos, a left-of-center research organization.

The partial government shutdown is even affecting active-duty members of the U.S. Coast Guard. While it is part of the U.S. military, the Coast Guard is under the Department of Homeland Security, not the Defense Department.

Administration officials are downplaying the financial effects of the shutdown on workers, but they acknowledge it will have some impact.

The Office of Personnel Management has posted sample letters on its website that furloughed employees can use to ask their creditors for extra time to pay their bills.

Sample Letter to Mortgage Company

Dear (Name of Company or individual with whom you have spoken)

This is to confirm our conversation of (date) in which we discussed a temporary reduction in my mortgage payment.

As we discussed, I am a Federal employee who has recently been furloughed due to a lack of funding of my agency. Because of this, my income has been severely cut and I am unable to pay the entire cost of my mortgage, along with my other expenses.

As we had agreed in our conversation, I will be able to make regular payments in the amount of $_______. I realize that I will be responsible to pay the remainder of the payments and, when I return to work, I will contact you immediately to work out a plan to take care of the reduced payments. I will also keep in touch with you to keep you informed about my income status.

The office suggests workers conclude their appeals for leniency with the line, "I appreciate your willingness to work with me and your understanding during this difficult time."

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

We are now into day seven of a partial shutdown of the federal government. Government employees are still getting paid for work they did before the shutdown, but the checks will soon be stopping. Among the 800,000 people to be affected nationwide are many people who struggle to make ends meet even in the best of times. Here's NPR's Tom Gjelten.

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: U.S. government workers on the whole make more than private sector workers, but there are plenty on the low end. Federal employees are paid according to their position on what's called the General Schedule. GS-1 workers start out at about 19,000 a year. An employee at the other end can make as much as 136,000. About 1 out of 8 full-time government workers makes less than $40,000 a year. Paul Kiefer, who works at an IRS service center in Austin, Texas, is in that general range.

PAUL KIEFER: I'm looking at everybody's returns to make sure everything is correct. And if there's an error, I may have to correct that error.

GJELTEN: A lot of responsibility, not a lot of income in today's economy. And it's about to stop at least temporarily.

KIEFER: Right now I'm worried about whether or not I can make a credit card payment, whether or not I can pay for the electricity, getting any food, pay for the rent, whether or not I'm going to be thrown out onto the street.

GJELTEN: It's that serious?

KIEFER: It's very serious.

GJELTEN: Kiefer was also affected by a previous government shutdown. In that case, he eventually got back pay but only because Congress authorized it. There's no guarantee he'll get it this time. Brooke Cole, who works at a Coast Guard air station in Port Angeles, Wash., is also caught up in the shutdown - also worried about what it'll mean.

BROOKE COLE: I'm not ashamed to talk about my finances at all. I think, you know, there's a lot of Americans hurting out there. You know, just to give you some perspective, I only have about $1,000 in savings. And if this continues through mid-January, I'm not going to have enough money saved up to pay for my bills and expenses.

GJELTEN: She has a long list.

COLE: I have to pay my rent. I have to - you know, I have a car payment. I have child care payments. You know, I have student loan payments, utility payments - all sorts of fun stuff (laughter).

GJELTEN: Cole works directly for the U.S. government. There are also many who work indirectly through contractors. A 2009 study found that 1 out of 5 government contract workers have incomes below the poverty threshold. They'll also be affected by this shutdown. Even some military members are affected. Brooke Cole's husband is on active duty in the Coast Guard stationed in Texas. And because the Coast Guard belongs to the Department of Homeland Security, not the Defense Department, he's likely to suffer during the shutdown.

COLE: If he doesn't get paid, we're both going to be in a world of hurt, especially because we maintain two households. I have credit cards available to me. I - you know, I might have to be forced to use those. I might have to call creditors to, like, you know, see if I can extend payments.

GJELTEN: Some Trump administration officials have downplayed the seriousness of this shutdown, but they don't deny it will have an impact. The government's Office of Personnel Management website has sample letters furloughed employees can send to their creditors asking for leniency. The office suggests workers conclude their appeals by saying, I appreciate your willingness to work with me and your understanding during this difficult time. Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington.

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