Furloughed federal workers feel pushed to the brink


Aja Allen, 34, a management analyst at HUD, has been furloughed since Oct. 1. A single mother of a toddler, she has had to borrow money and rely on her parents for assistance. (Andre Chung/For The Washington Post)

By the time Monique Henderson’s half paycheck for $365.54 arrived Friday, the single mother of two who works as a legal assistant for the Social Security Administration had already figured she wouldn’t be able to pay the rent.

She was behind on her electric bill and had racked up debt buying TVs, a computer and cellphones. Her 12-year-old daughter had already outgrown her expensive public school uniform and needed a new one. And with grocery bills mounting and nothing to pay them with, Henderson had spent six hours the previous day in line to apply for food stamps.

So Tuesday, even as lawmakers held out the promise of a deal to reopen the government, Henderson, 33, pulled out cardboard boxes she had stacked behind the couch in her living room and began to pack. She has no choice, she said, but to move back home with her mother, to her girlhood room with the 3-D art she made in high school still on the walls.

“And to think I came to work for the federal government for better ‘stability,’ ” she said with a bitter laugh.

In the Washington region, where the federal government is the biggest employer, federal jobs and their relatively high wages, good benefits and job security have enabled generations of single parents, especially mothers, to climb into the middle class.

Where U.S. is feeling the shutdown


Where U.S. is feeling the shutdown

Read about people's experiences with the shutdown across the nation.

African Americans have often found a path to more stable lives through government jobs, and that’s part of Henderson’s story, too. Her grandmother worked for the federal government, and her mother does now.

But after three years of pay freezes, a sequestration furlough over the summer and now the shutdown, Henderson worries that her hold on the middle class has become tenuous.

“I hear people calling federal workers lazy and stupid,” said Henderson, who had to leave about 6 a.m. to drive from her apartment in Camp Springs, in Prince George’s County, to the SSA offices in Fairfax. “And it’s sad that people consider us middle class. I consider myself lower class. I’m living paycheck to paycheck.”

Eric Bunn, a senior vice president of the American Federation of Government Employees and head of the District 4 region, said the shutdown has left families like Henderson’s “hanging by a string.”

“We talk about when we do get straight, we’ll reimburse federal workers,” Bunn said. “But this thing has been going on for three weeks. The mortgage man isn’t going to wait three weeks to get paid. The gas man isn’t going to wait. These things are hitting them day after day. The damage has been done.”

Federal workers at the lower end of the pay scale took a hit long before the shutdown. The number of blue-collar clerical workers in the federal government has dropped by 15 percent since 1998, to about 200,000, while professional and administrative jobs are on the rise, according to the Congressional Research Service. And reports show that it’s mainly women and minorities who occupy the lowest rungs.

A good, steady federal government job lifted Mauricecia Jones, 52, and her family out of poverty. Forced to quit her job to care for her husband, who had a stroke, she struggled to clothe and feed their three children on welfare. In 1998, she got a job as an administrative assistant at the Federal Aviation Administration through a welfare-to-work program.

But she’s not feeling so lucky lately. For the short term, she has savings to tide the family over. She lives with her mother in Northeast. She has put off car repairs and paying some bills, such as cable. But Jones spent the weekend trying to calm a hysterical niece. The niece — a furloughed federal worker and her own family’s sole breadwinner — is in a panic because she doesn’t have the money to pay the rent.

“It’s like you try to get up that ladder, then something like this happens, and you go down two or three rungs,” Jones said. “I worry about that.”

It’s not just single parents at the lowest rungs who are feeling the pain.

Aja Allen, a 34-year-old single mother, began working as a management analyst for the Department of Housing and Urban Development four years ago “for the stability.”

As the shutdown wore on, she ran through what little savings she had and was forced to borrow money from family members to keep up on the mortgage on her townhouse in Upper Marlboro and pay for her car loan and diapers for her 2-year-old.

“That’ll get me through to the end of the month,” she said. “But it feels so bad. I’m usually able to take care of my daughter on my own. I just feel like I’m not being the best provider that I can for her.”

Henderson, who, as a GS-5, makes $18.50 an hour, sat at her kitchen table poring over her $365.54 paycheck. Her boss had called her back into work on Oct. 9, but she only worked one day before realizing she couldn’t afford the gas to keep it up. She angrily posted on Facebook: “How is it that you’re taking federal taxes from me when the federal government is closed? Oh, that’s right. You’re paying Congress.”

As Henderson’s 8-year-old son, Geramiah, played Fantasy Football on the big-screen TV and her 12-year-old daughter, Kahterah, got ready for cheerleading practice, Henderson added up her monthly bills in her head: $1,000 for rent, $150 for electricity, about $60 for gas for her commute, $321 for her car loan, $100 for car insurance, $115 for parking, about $800 for food, $65 for cheerleading, on top of the $200 uniform.

At least she won’t have to pay back her student loans, she said, until she graduates from Strayer University, where she goes two nights a week to get a second college degree, in social work.

The phone rang.

Her daughter’s cheerleading coach said she hadn’t received the $65 monthly fee, and reminded Henderson to bring $10 extra to pay the tumbling teacher that night.

“Can you not charge me a $20 late fee?” Henderson said. “You know I’m furloughed, dang it!”

A neighbor boy, one of several children in the garden apartment complex who are constantly in and out of her apartment, brought in the mail.

Henderson opened a notice from school and slapped the envelope against her thigh. “Jesus, keep me near the cross,” she muttered. Her children’s certification to receive reduced-price lunches at school had expired Oct. 2.

She looked around, figuring what things she would take to her mother’s, what she would sell, what she would give away or throw out.

“I’ve always been a person who wants to do for herself. I don’t want to depend on anyone. It’s going to hurt me when I leave,” she said.

She took a breath. “I wonder how I’m going to pay for a moving truck.”

Brigid Schulte writes about work-life issues and poverty, seeking to understand what it takes to live The Good Life across race, class and gender.
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