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.
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.