Furloughed workers 'in survival mode'

Los Angeles TimesOctober 15, 2013 

It might seem like a paid vacation for the 500,000 federal workers on furlough.

They’ve been out of work since last week and were promised back pay once a budget is passed and the government reopens.

But for many rank-and-file employees who live paycheck to paycheck, the shutdown is proving to be a massive financial headache. Some say their savings have been wiped out after a three-year pay freeze and a previous round of furloughs during the summer.

The nation’s ideological battle over health care and spending is hitting these workers in the pocketbook. They’re falling behind on rent, car payments, credit card debt and other bills.

“I am in survival mode,” said Timothy Maimone, 51, of Mission Viejo, Calif., a furloughed quality assurance specialist for the Department of Defense. “I am barely squeaking by right now.”

Maimone said he earns just enough to cover the mortgage on his house, pay bills and take care of his son, Salvatore, 7. But the first government shutdown in nearly two decades has him stressed and angry about money.

A single dad with no savings, he’s prioritizing bills in case the shutdown goes on for weeks. He’s already missed his monthly credit card payment and is late on the mortgage. He’s stopped paying the trash bill and shelled out the minimum to keep the water on. And he’s holding off on buying clothes for Salvatore.

Workers like Maimone have been told their last paycheck from working before the shutdown could arrive soon. Even then, they'll get paid only for the days they worked and not the furloughed days, which will be settled up later. There won’t be another check until the government reopens.

$160 million a day

The pain is spreading to the private sector as many companies with government contracts begin sending workers home.

The furloughs are costing the economy at least $160 million per workday, according to market research firm IHS. If the shutdown continues beyond three or four weeks, economic growth could be cut in half in the last quarter of the year, Moody’s Analytics said.

The federal government had about 2.15 million people, excluding postal workers unaffected by the shutdown, on its payroll in August, according to the government.

“They are middle-class Americans,” said Colleen Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, which represents about 150,000 federal workers. “They are frightened about what this means to their families. Many are the sole supporters of their families.”

Kelley’s union represents workers from 31 federal agencies and departments such as Treasury and Homeland Security. She said about 40 percent of the union’s members take home salaries of less than $50,000 a year.

“There are tens of thousands of workers who don’t have backup plans or a support system,” she said.

Frugality for all

Even those who do have savings are counting their pennies.

Malcolm Gettmann, 59, and his wife have been furloughed from their jobs at the Internal Revenue Service in San Diego. Like many other furloughed workers, the pair have filed for unemployment benefits and are scrambling to tighten their belts.

The couple, who have some savings, said they don’t plan to make big purchases any time soon. Instead, Gettmann said, they now meticulously plan meals and buy only those groceries that are on sale. There is just enough to cover their $1,600 mortgage payment and expenses until the third week of November.

He’s not at all impressed by a House bill passed Saturday that guarantees back pay to workers once the shutdown ends.

That pay is approved only “when the Senate passes it and the president signs it,” noted Gettmann, who also serves as the Treasury union’s chapter president for San Diego and Imperial counties. “Meanwhile, the mortgage is still due, the car payments are still due, everything is still due.”

But government workers might be getting some relief on their bills.

Major banks, such as Wells Fargo and PNC Bank, say they’re working with customers individually. Others, such as TD Bank, are offering no-interest payday loans.

On its website, JPMorgan Chase said it was ready to help on “financial challenges that might arise – much like we worked with our customers through Hurricane Sandy and tornadoes in Oklahoma.”

Many credit unions have gone even further to help.

Navy Federal Credit Union, the largest credit union in the United States, is expediting approval on raising credit card limits and letting members withdraw from certificates of deposit without penalties. Financial services firm USAA is offering payment deferrals and refunding some fees on credit cards and other services.

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