Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Government workers worry about shutdown continuing into the new year

December 31st, 2018 | Casey Quinlan

The Office of Personnel Management (OPM), which handles human resource issues for government workers, has advice for the roughly 800,000 people who won’t receive their paychecks as scheduled during the partial government shutdown: get a lawyer and barter your services if you can’t make ends meet.

On Thursday, in an attempt to assist employees facing mounting bills and rent payments, OPM officials tweeted out sample letters for workers to send to creditors, mortgage companies, and landlords. One such letter, intended for an employee’s landlord, reads, “I will keep in touch with you to keep you informed about my income status and I would like to discuss with you the possibility of trading my services to perform maintenance (e.g. painting, carpentry work) in exchange for partial rent payments.”

While the letters have been used in the past for other shutdowns — and though employees say they are sometimes effective — many workers still worry they may not be enough.

“Car payments, insurance payments, rent, storage, etc., they build up quick,” Chris, an employee at the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), whose last name has been withheld, told ThinkProgress this week.

If the current shutdown, which began December 21, lasts longer than two weeks — which it’s currently expected to do — “that’s when I would start worrying,” he added.

OPM officials suggested workers “consult with [their] personal attorney” if they have trouble navigating especially tricky situations or are concerned about pressing issues. As some have noted, however, many middle income workers don’t have ready access to a personal attorney and may find themselves in an unwanted situation as a result.

Some workers simply can’t spare the extra cash for an attorney, because it’s being used for more important purposes. Chris, for example, moved back home to his parent’s house after his father suffered a stroke and is helping his father with the mortgage.

“I do not have an attorney nor do I plan on getting one,” he said, though he noted the letters to creditors and landlords had helped him “in past shutdowns” and would likely “prove useful again if the shutdown continues.”

In Chris’ case, if the government’s lapse in funding isn’t resolved soon, he may have to take out a retirement plan loan or cancel upcoming travel. That includes an overseas trip his family has planned at the end of January for his grandmother’s funeral.

About 380,000 federal workers will be furloughed without pay and 420,000 federal workers will continue to work without pay if the shutdown, which began after Republicans and Democrats were unable to reach a consensus on funding for President Trump’s proposed border wall, continues into 2019, according to a fact sheet assembled by Senate Democratic staffers earlier this month, NBC News reported.

Many departments and agencies, such as the office of Food and Nutrition Services that oversees the Child Nutrition, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), saw staffing slashed to nearly zero, with related programs only operational “based on available resources,” CNN noted.

Now on its seventh day, the shutdown has been a nightmare for affected federal workers. It has also hit contractors, who typically are not paid retroactively as regular employees are, said Susan Moser, a partner at the Cherry Bekaert law firm, whose clients have been affected in the past, in a recent interview with HuffPost.

Those struggles are unlikely to end anytime soon. The shutdown impasse is expected to last until at least January 3 when the new Congress is seated. Lawmakers told Politico they were concerned the shutdown might persist longer than that, well into January.

Credit unions that serve federal employees are currently offering loans to workers to stave off financial hardship, and nonprofits such as Coast Guard Mutual Assistance are also providing financial support. But many employees say they’re already living paycheck to paycheck and that temporary support means nothing if a long-term solution is not reached.

After Trump told reporters on Tuesday that “many” federal workers supported the shutdown, several of them fired back on social media.

“My husband is a federal worker,” Theresa Garcia tweeted. “[W]e need our paycheck next week to pay our mortgage.”

Another federal worker tweeted at Trump, “We live paycheck to paycheck. Who will pay my mortgage January 1st? You?”

On Thursday, the president suggested that “most of the people not getting paid are Democrats,” suggesting that Democrats were hurting themselves by not agreeing to his demand for wall funding, which currently stands at a proposed $5 billion. Democrats have roundly rejected that offer.

Chris countered that assertion, saying he knows many federal workers affected by the shutdown who are Republican — including those working for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Customs and Border Protection, and TSA, who support Trump’s policies.

“I can definitely say that most federal workers are not Democrats. But I can say that most federal workers are good people,” he said.

He added, “I am hoping there will be resolution — and not just for me, but for all 800,000 federal employees.”

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on December 28, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Casey Quinlan is a policy reporter at ThinkProgress covering economic policy and civil rights issues. Her work has been published in The Establishment, The Atlantic, The Crime Report, and City Limits.

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