Federal Workers Getting Last of Pre-Shutdown Paychecks

Families struggling to stretch cash as shutdown wears on

On Friday, many federal employees will receive their last paychecks for the foreseeable future -- and those paychecks will be for less than half the usual amount.

Due to the government shutdown, the pay period that many civilian federal workers will be paid for this weekend is being split into two unequal parts: six days of pay, four days of nothing.

It's the final trickle of pay before the 10-day shutdown fully hits federal workers' budgets. Many employees -- whether they are ruled essential or not -- have no idea when the paychecks will start again, which has them worried about everything from bills to food to keeping the good credit required for government clearances.

"I could only pay half of my October rent so that I would have money to get groceries until my next and possibly last check tomorrow," said Lisa of Arlington, Va., a furloughed federal worker who did not want her last name used. Many federal workers have been told not to comment publicly on the shutdown.

Lisa, the single mother of a child with special needs, is one of those who will receive her last check Friday. After that, she's not sure what will happen. She said she's fortunate that her landlord is being understanding; that landlord is also a government employee.

Government agencies have different paydays based on the payroll provider each uses. Those who are paid through funding sources other than annual appropriations won't see a lapse in pay. But many other employees expect checks this Friday that will be smaller than usual. Before the shutdown, their checks would have covered the period from Sept. 22 to Oct. 4. But the government shut down at midnight Oct. 1, and about 800,000 workers were furloughed.

The number out of work has dropped since the shutdown began; some 350,000 civilian Defense Department workers were called back to work Monday. However, workers who were deemed essential and told to report to work aren't getting paid, either.

Cynthia Brown is one of them. As a printer journeyperson, she works nights to print congressional records of each session -- "ironically," she adds, since she's been working for no pay, unlike those whose words, and votes, she prints.

Brown's paycheck Friday will be missing five days' worth of pay, including a day of overtime for the Saturday after the shutdown. She's the sole earner for her family, supporting two teenage daughters and her disabled father who lives with them.

Due to a medical issue last month that resulted in five days of unpaid leave, she still owes October rent money and is behind on her utilities.

"I don't think I'm going to able to make it," Brown said. "And they can only be so patient. There are some that are working with me, but the worst thing is you can't tell them a date."

In the meantime, she's visited food pantries to make ends meet. "They've already told me I'm not the only federal employee" going, she said.

Essential employees are facing unique challenges going without pay because it costs money to go to work, including for transportation and child care. Brown spends about $60 on gas per week commuting from Waldorf, Md.

Additionally, while most taxes and deductions are taken out of paychecks proportionally, some workers are feeling stung as they realize that the full amount of their health insurance premiums will be deducted from their smaller paychecks Friday.

Erica Johnson, who processes disability appeals for the Social Security Administration, said she'll be paid Friday for only one week of work, not two. She's also getting paid for 15 hours of overtime she'd accrued before the shutdown.

While her federal and state taxes and other deductions were lower than usual, her health care premium, life insurance and union dues will cost the same Friday as they always do.

"People here are in for a shock," said Johnson, who's worked for the government for 27 years. "Your deductions don't stop. A lot of the middle-grade people are bringing home a lot less."

Johnson said that many of her coworkers saved some money during September because they had three pay periods last month and knew a shutdown was possible. And she's hopeful about receiving back pay, as she did during the previous shutdowns 17 years ago.

"I'm more optimistic than a lot of people because I've been through this before," she said.

But the missing pay could send some workers on a downward financial spiral, which is a big concern to employees who need to maintain good credit to keep their government clearance.

"...[W]e were told at our agency that you must keep up with your bills, and not have any late payments or reports to the credit agencies," federal worker Thomasa Wood wrote in a Facebook comment to NBC Washington. "...I contacted my creditors, and all of them said the same thing: We expect to see your payment, and if not, we will consider you late, which could result in reporting you to the credit agencies."

Like Wood, Amy Blackburn says she's been living paycheck to paycheck. A mother of two small children, Blackburn is now going through a divorce. She's worked for the government 24 years.

"This shutdown is literally going to force me to chose between food for myself or necessities for my children," she said.

Dealing with an unexpected expense is impossible right now. The Blackburns' heating system broke recently, and there's no money to fix it until she's back at work.

"Looks like it's coats in the house and blankets for everyone," she said.

Many furloughed workers are in the process of filing for unemployment; more than 26,000 did so in D.C. and Maryland during the first week of the shutdown. But if the Senate passes a bill to provide back pay, workers would be required to pay back their unemployment.

That's not a deterrent for everyone.

Loretta Norman says her husband, a Department of Homeland Security employee, will see his last paycheck Oct. 18. They're expecting six days of pay instead of 10.

They've already submitted a hardship form to their mortgage company, and as the sole earner for their family of four, he's planning to apply for unemployment in D.C.

"It will be enough to eat, and that's about it," Norman said. "Thank goodness creditors are willing to work with us."

Others, like Brown, can't file because they're still working -- even though now they're working for free.

"I don't really talk about politics that much, " Brown said. "If they just knew how much this is affecting ordinary people when they're still receiving their pay. I went to the federal government thinking it was a secure and stable job, and for the most part is has been, until now."


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