As last paychecks roll in for federal workers, frustration and fear sink in

Shutdown hits families hard 2:37

It’s one thing for the government shutdown to sink your family vacation to Dry Tortugas National Park. But the budget fight is shifting from annoyance to hardship as thousands of federal workers get their last paychecks until — well, nobody knows.

Federal pay cycles are a patchwork calendar. The stargazers at NASA, at least those deemed nonessential, got their last paychecks on Tuesday. The bean-counters at Treasury got them Thursday.

But one thing is clear as an estimated 800,000 furloughed workers warily watch their checking accounts: The frustration — and fear — are growing every day.

Federal workers demonstrate against the government shutdown in front of the US Capitol in Washington on Friday. Nicholas Kamm / AFP - Getty Images

Mark Thompson, 41, works as a civilian employee at Scott Air Force Base in Illinois, supervising workers in supply chain operations. He counts himself among the lucky ones — his wife has a good job as a physical therapist and he has some savings to fall back on.

Still, Thompson said he can’t help but worry about what could happen if the shutdown drags on for months, leaving him without a paycheck for long enough that he would have trouble paying the mortgage and other expenses.

 “It could end tomorrow, it could end in November, nobody knows,” he said. “The stress is you don’t really know what to do – how to manage.”

Thompson was last paid on Sept. 27, and he is hoping he will receive a partial paycheck next week to cover the time he worked before the shutdown.

He also has applied for unemployment benefits. In addition, he’s considering looking for another job – but he’s worried that no one will want to hire him knowing he’ll have a job to go back to when the shutdown ends.

“Why would they invest any time or training?” he said. “Gee whiz, I don’t think even McDonald’s would.”

Furloughed federal employees can apply for unemployment benefits, but it’s complicated: If federal workers are given back pay when the dispute is resolved -- the House will consider a bill Saturday regarding retroactive pay -- in most cases federal employees will have to pay back the unemployment money.

Some of the federal workers are turning to creative solutions for fast cash. Mekayla Coleman, who works in technology at the Department of Defense’s Defense Acquisition University, turned to Craigslist in hopes of selling some baby items she no longer needs.

“Prices can be negotiable, but please serious offers only, I really need the money,” says the listing, which advertises about $300 worth of items.

Coleman is in something of a bind because she recently spent her savings to get her house ready for sale and hadn’t saved up for the shutdown.

“It’s not looking good,” she said. “My husband works, but I make the most money, so it’s going to be tough.”

Others are taking to Twitter with messages for the federal government:

At her home in suburban Washington, Kate Struckmann has been looking for ways to save here and there. She’s planning inexpensive meals — the PB&J and mac-and-cheese are popular with the kids, 10 and 6 — and has been careful to use coupons.

Her husband, Kyle, works for the National Weather Service. As an employee deemed essential, he is still working, but she said that the family has no idea when his next paycheck will arrive. He was due to be paid on the 14th.

As for the bills, some companies have offered temporary discounts and suggested ways to change service to save money. In the meantime, Struckmann said that she is trying to keep from dipping into her and her husband’s retirement accounts.

And the Commerce Department, which runs the weather service, has offered a letter than the Struckmanns can send to creditors in hopes of getting a break.

“If that doesn’t work, the cell phones are going to go,” she said. “The cable is going to go. Christmas is gonna be light. My daughter’s birthday is coming up — that’s going to be light. We make do.”

She said she mostly blames the Republicans for the shutdown. As she watches the squabbling in Washington, she said, “Honestly, I think they’re being ridiculous.”

Katie Little of CNBC contributed to this report.