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Thursday, January 17, 2019

New England workers struggle with effects of Trump shutdown

"It's getting harder and harder to afford even the routine daily expenses like gas and child care."
Image result for Trump shutdownRobert Literman is dreading the arrival of the heating bill.

Temperatures have plummeted in recent weeks in New England and, in tandem, gas, electric, and oil bills will inevitably rise. Literman is not a federal employee, but his income has been cut off as a result of the ongoing government shutdown, which, this week, became the longest in U.S. history, at 26 days.

As a post-doctoral fellow working at the University of Rhode Island, Literman’s fellowship is funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), one of the dozens of federal agencies that are closed during the shutdown. 

Until a funding bill is passed, Literman cannot draw a salary. He has stopped commuting to the university as much as possible to save money on gas, but most of his family’s expenses are fixed, so there are few corners to cut.

“What’s unexpected is the oscillation between anger and embarrassment,” Literman told ThinkProgress. “The uncertainty as to when this will end is the biggest source of anxiety.”

It is hard to know how many Americans are directly affected by the shutdown, as federal grant recipients like Literman are not counted among the 800,000 federal employees who are currently working without pay or are furloughed. 

With no end in sight for the shutdown — which began over demands from President Donald Trump that Congress fund a $5 billion wall along the U.S.-Mexico border — thousands of New England federal workers are trying to cope with their sudden, indefinite loss of income.

Last week, dozens of federal employees took to Boston’s Post Office Square to protest the shutdown, in a rally organized by the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) Union, which is responsible for the Boston metro area, New Hampshire, and Maine.

“We had personnel across all kinds of agencies come out, and even a recipient of [Housing and Urban Development] services who is being impacted by the shutdown,” said Valyria Lewis, a national representative for AFGE. 

“We are going to continue to have these rallies, we are not going to quietly go away. We want to get the word out that we are not in agreement with the shutdown.”

The vast majority — 79 percent — of federal workers live and work outside the D.C. metro area. In the six states that make up New England, more than 14,000 federal employees are either furloughed or working without pay. 

That includes Natasha Richey’s husband, a 12-year veteran of the Coast Guard currently stationed near Portsmouth, NH. The Coast Guard is administered under the Department of Homeland Security, which is currently affected by the shutdown, making it the only military branch whose active-duty members are not being paid.

The Richey family have been contacting creditors to try to defer payments and may have to take out a loan to cover some expenses. The shutdown has taken a toll on their credit, so Ms. Richey is not sure they will be approved. In the meantime, she is trying to save money on gas and co-pays by delaying doctors appointments for her son, who needs to see a specialist several hours away on a regular basis.

Numbering more than 4,000, active duty Coast Guard make up more than a quarter of federal employees in New England who are currently without an income. Throughout the region, food pantries have opened to support Coast Guard families. 

On the first day of its opening, 400 Coast Guard families visited a pop-up food pantry in Boston, organized by the Massachusetts Military Support Foundation.
“I’ve been with the government since the shutdowns started to happen, but this is the first one that has affected our paychecks.”
Employees at the Bureau of Prisons and Federal Aviation Administration are working without pay. Tara Bales, a corrections officer at the Federal Correctional Institute in Berlin, NH, has relied on low interest loans and food banks to get by, but she is still struggling to make ends meet.

“It’s getting harder and harder to afford even the routine daily expenses like gas and child care,” Bales told ThinkProgress. “Expenses are piling up, bills are coming due … With the cold reaching -15 degrees plus windchill, people are running through heating oil like water, without having the means to purchase more.”

For Jeffery Davis, an air traffic controller at Boston’s Logan Airport, the shutdown has been especially difficult given his financial responsibilities as a single father of three. 

He is one of 14,000 air traffic controllers nationwide who have to report to work without pay, making it nearly impossible for him to make his child support and alimony payments. Davis has taken to GoFundMe to raise money as a stopgap measure.

“It’s a really big burden not having anything coming in,” he said. “I’ve been with the government since the shutdowns started to happen, but this is the first one that has affected our paychecks.”

Nafis White has also turned to crowdfunding to make up for lost income during the shutdown. White is a multimedia sculptor from Rhode Island who was chosen to be the artist in residence at the New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park, which is part of the National Park service. 

In exchange for a stipend and studio space, White was tasked with creating artwork and programming to engage the local community. She’s making do in the meantime, carving out space to create in her small sublet, but is concerned about the furloughed park employees.

“I remember one of the Rangers saying that a shutdown would be disastrous to both staff and volunteers,” White said, referring to a meeting that took place prior to the shutdown. “I was told that some people lived paycheck to paycheck and that they did the job they loved and were invested despite the humble salary.”

Alfie Paul, director of operations at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) branch in Boston, can likely relate. Paul is also furloughed, along with his entire staff and while he says he’s not struggling financially at the moment, he is sure many members of his staff are hurting.

“Everyday people who don’t work for the federal government need to make their voices heard,” Paul said. “This is affecting real people. We are real people doing services for the American public. Everything that all of us do has some effect on other people’s lives.”

Claire Sadar is a freelance journalist who covers Turkey, Muslim Americans, religion, and human rights issues.