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Trump's government shutdown is not a 'vacation' for federal workers like my husband

Dear Wilbur Ross: My husband is a furloughed employee. We are a single-income family. Here's what the shutdown actually feels like.
Image: Wilbur Ross
Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross is not the messenger the Trump administration needs with this shutdown.Saul Loeb / AFP - Getty Images file

A few days into this snowballing disaster of a partial government shutdown, President Donald Trump’s chief economic adviser Kevin Hasset made the mind-bending statement that this involuntary cessation of work is like a vacation for federal workers. On Monday, Trump’s daughter-in-law, Lara Trump, said the shutdown was causing “a little bit of pain,” but that future generations would thank furloughed workers for their sacrifice. And then on Thursday, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross told Bloomberg he “didn’t understand” why the shutdown was forcing some furloughed federal workers to seek out food banks and suggested they simply go to a real bank and snap up a loan.

Well Secretary Ross, my husband is a furloughed USDA employee. We are a single-income family. And let me tell you, we are neither on a vacation nor suffering just a “a little bit of pain.”

With our leaders in Washington — not to mention some of our neighbors — seemingly so confused about the actual toll of the longest shutdown in American history, I thought it might be worthwhile to clear the air.

First, let’s address this idea that being forced to stop working equates to being on vacation. There is nothing we love to do more on vacation than eat. Now, our family doesn’t eat fast food, even if we’re desperate. We like seafood. We love sushi. And the more desserts, the better! Once every year or two, we may even splurge and visit a Brazilian steakhouse. For us, it’s all about the food! This week, in the best imitation of fine dining our budget could provide, I served potato soup for supper. Six potatoes. Water. Salt. And a single can of evaporated milk. The total cost was less than $3 to feed five people. It filled our hungry tummies when supplemented with saltine crackers. But the satisfaction was as minimal as the cost.

First, let’s address this idea that being forced to stop working equates to being on vacation.

On vacation, we might drive around — maybe explore a new museum or go to a rock concert. There is nothing better than listening to Jimmy Buffet while sitting in the grass in Atlanta. Planning and budgeting are critical so you can maximize the fun for the money available. Last night, we sat on the floor and played “Go Fish” in front of our darkened television set. Streaming services and cable cost money. We wear sweaters inside because we’ve turned down the heat to 62° to save on the substantive winter heating bills brought on by bitter Iowa winters. And we all try not to feel claustrophobic. Usually in winter, when patience wears thin and the weather makes playing outside impossible, we might go window shop at the mall. Or go play racquetball at the YMCA. But we live miles out in the country and gas is too precious right now to waste on such frivolous enterprises.

Even so, we are in the fortunate few. After surviving serious economic hardships in the late 1990’s that left us without food for the table or heat for the house for an entire winter, we now maintain a financial reserve for situations like this. The complicating factor at this point is that we have no idea how long that reserve needs to last, so we are cutting every expense possible to stretch it out.

Our hearts break for the vast majority of affected workers who didn’t have a reserve when this started, such as those frequenting food banks, low-income renters worried about losing their apartments and federal contractors who are not only potentially losing their health insurance but may never have any opportunity to make this money back. And yet, it seems the longer the shutdown lasts, the more public sentiment is starting to turn against us.

Image: Therese Easley
Therese Easley, an FDA contract worker, collects food and supplies from a food pantry for furloughed government workers affected by the federal shutdown in Baltimore on Jan. 23, 2019.Patrick Semansky / AP

The suggestion those of us missing paychecks should just get a loan or use a credit card is egregiously disconnected from the financial realities of life for most Americans. We use our credit cards every month and pay them off almost every month. But with Christmas just behind us, the credit card balances were already riding high when the shutdown started. At least the credit card companies are working with us as far as letting us skip payments and adjusting late fees. But while some banks are helping with stop-gap loans for affected employees, not all banks are.

The idea that our government is so unreliable that employees should anticipate needing bridge loans to make ends meet is incredibly discouraging. And yet, if this drags on into spring, we will have to look for such a loan ourselves.

The suggestion those of us missing paychecks should just get a loan or use a credit card is egregiously disconnected from the financial realities of life for most Americans.

On social media, people are starting to call us entitled. The simple expectation of job security is not entitlement. On the news, one genuinely entitled person, Lara Trump, implied we should just take one for the team. This rising lack of sympathy is worrisome. Worse, we are utterly lost as to what “team” we are supposed to be taking one for. Federal employees don’t have a team. Despite efforts to paint us as mostly Democrats, there is no partisan bias or requirement for the hundreds of thousands of people currently affected by this shutdown.

There are no questions relating to party affiliation on the work application or in the security questionnaires. In fact, the only truly partisan members of the government, Congress, are still getting paid. We, the affected, worried, hungry, scared and increasingly desperate federal workers are a tremendously diverse group of people from all socioeconomic, religious, and political backgrounds. We share only one simple, singular belief: that our service to this nation matters.

After our son is to bed tonight under an extra quilt, my husband and I will sit down at the kitchen table and take up our new ritual. We will review the expenses of the day, try to anticipate the expenses for tomorrow, and make yet one more transfer from our dwindling savings account to our checking account. Planning and budgeting are critical. Because we have no idea when this “vacation” will end.