By Steve Hendrix
The Washington Post
WASHINGTON — The paycheck federal workers have been dreading hit bank accounts across the Washington region Friday, representing salaries cut in half for most idled employees. The next payday will be all zeros, and with furloughs dragging on, civil servants are settling into a financial crouch, slashing expenses, canceling vacations, tapping retirement savings and taking second jobs.
"We have no income coming into the house right now, but the bills haven't stopped," said John Ferris of Falls Church, Va. He is in a two-furlough marriage; both he and his wife, Lena, are locked out of jobs at the Environmental Protection Agency. With both of their paychecks dwindling, the family of six has put a scalpel to the household budget.
They've cut out restaurants and expensive groceries. Gone are the motel stays at their kids travel softball tournaments; instead, they drive all night. But the most painful cut has been a furlough of their own, laying off their autistic son's longtime reading specialist.
"He's been with our family for years, and I love him to death, but I thought, 'Wow, how am I going to pay him if we don't have paychecks coming,' " Lena Ferris said. She worries that one of the shutdown's lasting aftershocks could be her son's having to adjust to a new tutor. "He needs money, too," she said of the tutor. "I'm worried he's going to start working for another family."
Federal workers say they were hugely relieved by last week's House vote to guarantee the missed pay after the furlough's over. But that hasn't eased their anxiety over the bills stacking up in the meantime. Some parents are stretching to pay for day care they don't need just so they don't lose their slots while waiting to go back to work. All around the region, the furloughed are looking for money to satisfy their creditors or begging them for more time to pay their bills.
"A lot of our members have been asking to skip a payment," said Pamela Hout, chief executive of the Census Federal Credit Union. Her staff has been working a few hours a week at the nearly deserted Census Bureau headquarters in Prince George's County, Md. to meet the demand. "We've been accommodating them; all they have to do is show us their [furlough] letter."
The Ferrises, who lived through the shutdowns of the mid-1990s as young EPA staffers, moved fast to get cash, taking out a loan from their federal retirement program to cover the mortgage for two months. If the standoff goes longer, they will consider a second note on their house to keep bill-paying money on hand.
"I'm the kind of guy who really would be up every night worried about how to pay the mortgage," John Ferris said.
Caroline Fernandez spent part of the week applying for unemployment benefits as a way to generate carry-over income while she and her husband are furloughed. She works on homelessness-prevention programs for the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Her husband produces reading material for the blind at the Library of Congress. The couple, who live in Takoma Park, Md., never expected to find themselves struggling the way many of their clients do.
"Here we were serving these marginalized populations, and now we've been marginalized," David Fernandez-Barrial said.
Social service agencies and health-care providers in the area reported an uptick in federal workers asking for help or doing without as the shutdown vise tightened on family budgets.
Lori Alexander, a physical therapist in Alexandria, Va., said many of her patients in the federal workforce have dropped treatments to save the co-pay.
Managers at Nourish Now, a District of Columbia nonprofit group that collects unused food from restaurants and caterers, said they were surprised to have seven furloughed federal workers apply for food aid in recent days. "People thought it might not last long, but now they're missing their first paycheck, and they need help," said the executive director, Brett Meyers.
Matthew Barker, an Alexandria area resident, has a degree in biology from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and an arborist job with the Architect of the Capitol. But with his wife five months pregnant at home and finances already tight, he braced for his first semi-paycheck by starting a part-time job as a night janitor at an Arlington County, Va. middle school.
"I just have to figure out where the money is going to come from," Barker said. "I could call up my parents, they know what's going on, but you don't want to do that as the 28-year-old head of a family. When something has to be done, you just do it."
The shutdown came at a tough time for the Barkers. The couple, who met as AmeriCorps volunteers in Alaska six years ago, moved to the Washington area expressly to get a foothold in a job market their friends described as robust and stable. They kept their old Jeep as long they could, canceled credit cards and tried to live frugally as they established a household in a 700-square-foot, 1960s-era apartment where the water doesn't always work.
"We are a paycheck-to-paycheck family now," said Barker's wife, Shandean Bell, 27. Her marketing job disappeared earlier this year when her boss closed up shop owing her two months' pay. "It's hard. People have these opinions and say, 'Oh, government workers are getting a free vacation.' Well it's not a free vacation when we can't make our car payment this week. My husband is so intelligent and has all these degrees, and he's cleaning up barf in a middle school. I'm so proud of him."
Jennifer Noon didn't realize just how much she was feeling the weight of the shutdown. When Noon, the wife of a furloughed Social Security Administration worker, sat down to tap out an email on Day 10, the tears that welled up took her by surprise.
"The stress and anxiety is taking a toll, and I find myself crying randomly and wonder what tomorrow will bring," said Noon, a stay-at-home mother in the Baltimore suburbs. "We raided my husband's penny jar so that we could go out to breakfast the other day and just try and leave the stress behind for a few hours."
With husband Jay's pay cut in half Friday and potentially wiped out entirely for weeks to come, he figures they have six weeks of grocery money and nothing for bills. Noon said she shut down their automatic bill pay systems and has been calling creditors.
"Most have been very forgiving, which is good," she said. "Some are requiring us to come in and sign paperwork to show proof of federal employment."
Her boys are 4 and 6 years old. In search of cheap entertainment, the family went camping with some furloughed friends last weekend.
"The hardest thing so far was informing my youngest son's preschool that we cannot pay his tuition," Noon said. "But, thankfully, they are a wonderful group and have just asked us to continue to keep them informed and pay when we can."
Federal contract workers idled by the shutdown, on the other hand, know they are unlikely ever to see the pay they are missing during the furlough. Derek Hills, 39, works for a systems development contractor at the Department of Homeland Security. To fend off the empty paychecks while he's furloughed, he's burning through the vacation time he had been hoarding for a 40th-birthday trip to New Zealand.
Once his vacation time is depleted, probably by the end of next week, he'll go on unpaid leave and start scouring his spending for "anything that's discretionary." His company warned that it might start laying people off.
"I've been eating in more," Hills said.
The Ferrises, meanwhile, are using the furlough to update their resumes and brush off their LinkedIn networks. One of them, they've decided, had better get away from government work.
"We love public service," Lena Farris said. "We're very committed to our jobs and the mission of our agency. But it's just too unstable."