"I can't not feed my child:" Unpaid federal workers face painful choices as rent bills loom

On Friday, many workers impacted by the shutdown will miss their second paycheck.
Food bank during shutdown.

Sam Baldasano knows there’s zero margin for error in his job as an air traffic controller. The veteran of the Federal Aviation Administration makes sure to show up to work each day clear-eyed and focused. But, during the extended partial government shutdown, it’s been difficult to push his increasingly dire financial situation from his mind. And with Feb. 1 fast approaching and no paycheck in sight, his stress is mounting.

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On the first of the month, he’ll face the mortgage bill. Then the car payment for the Kia Optima he got when he and his wife found out they were pregnant with their 5-month-old daughter. Throughout the month, he’ll pay bills to chip away at the thousands of dollars in medical debt his family incurred when his daughter had surgery for a rare birth defect that causes a baby’s intestines to develop outside her body. Then the Comcast bill, the ADT Security bill, the phone bill, and so on. Baldasano can’t afford to make most of those payments now.

“Those are the things that I’m thinking about when I’m sitting in front of a radar scope, controlling thousands of lives throughout the sky,” Baldasano said.

The 38-year-old Knoxville, Tennessee, resident has already gotten a loan from his mother. But he doesn’t know what he’ll do to make ends meet if President Donald Trump and Congress don’t soon end their impasse over allocating $5.7 billion in taxpayer dollars to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border.

The partial government shutdown — now the longest in U.S. history — is in its fifth week. Baldasano is among 800,000 impacted federal workers and countless government contractors who are about to miss their second paycheck while facing yet another month of bills, often adding up to thousands of dollars.

Read more: The shutdown has crippled these domestic violence shelters.

Some institutions, landlords, and lenders have been forgiving to shutdown-impacted clients. Credit unions and financial institutions have offered federal employees zero-interest loans worth one or two months’ net pay — helping some people make critical payments — but most are short-term, and will add to the workers’ debts once their paychecks return.

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Some companies have also pledged to waive late and overdraft fees, serve up free meals, or offer free gym memberships. But the estimated hundreds of millions of Americans living paycheck to paycheck still have to navigate a matrix of bills from companies with varying levels of sympathy.

Kimberlin Allums, a 37-year-old tax examiner for the Internal Revenue Service, didn’t pay her $610 monthly rent for a two-bedroom apartment Kansas City, Missouri, last month. She notified her landlord in advance that she’d have to pay late because of the shutdown. Then, she found a notice on her door that she’d be evicted if she didn’t pay up soon. Allums is about to tell her landlord she can’t afford to pay again, and she isn’t sure if or when she’ll be kicked out.

“With the one check that we did get before Christmas — and it wasn’t a full check — we’ve been trying to stretch it. I have a daughter. I can’t not feed my child,” Allums said. “I don’t have a lot of family support or anyone to ask for money.” “Lots of days I don’t even want to get up out the bed.”

Many government workers are currently facing a slew of bad options to try to make their rent or mortgage payments: wiping out hard-earned savings, dipping into lines of credit or borrowing money, taking out payday loans, skipping other bills and ultimately damaging their credit scores. Some of those who can’t pay for their housing will face eviction. For the 800,000 federal employees alone, there’s $438 million in monthly housing payments on the line if the shutdown persists, according to a Zillow analysis.

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Read more: Trump administration suggests workers pay rent with manual labor.

Housing is the top expenditure for many American households, according to government data, closely followed by transportation expenses. Things like car payments, student loan payments, and child support are also often due at the beginning of the month, which could further exacerbate the strain on federal employees’ savings — if they have any to speak of. About 40 percent of Americans say they wouldn’t be able to cover an unexpected $400 expense without borrowing money first, according to a report from the Federal Reserve. Approximately 20 percent of Americans can’t even afford to pay all of their monthly bills. The average federal worker makes about $85,600 annually, according to the Washington Post, but nearly 111,000 of those workers make less than $50,000. And the average American has $38,000 in personal debt, excluding mortgages, according to data from Northwestern Mutual. Rental prices, meanwhile, are rising across the country, and the cost of living in America overall is going up at a fast clip.

More than 1,500 crowdfunding campaigns have been set up in the past few weeks through GoFundMe to help federal workers get by, according to CNN, and many federal workers are working side gigs, like driving Uber and Lyft, babysitting, and delivering food.

Spencer Monheim, who lives in California’s notoriously expensive Bay Area and works as a software and aerospace engineer for NASA, is one of the workers deemed “nonessential” and furloughed during the government shutdown. He was able to make it through January by living cheaply. He and his wife are eating beans, rice, and ramen. They haven’t bought furniture for their new apartment yet. But, facing another month of bills, he decided to withdraw $15,000 from his retirement account. Now he and his wife have the money to last them a while, but he’s worried about the other government employees who won’t.

“I’m concerned that on Feb. 1 — what’s going to happen to these people?” Monheim said. “It really just kind of beats you down.”

Cover: TSA worker Elizabeth Ford is given a bottle of milk at a food bank for government workers affected by the shutdown, Tuesday, Jan. 22, 2019, in the Brooklyn borough of New York. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)