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The government shutdown’s fear factor: “If I don’t work, my bills don’t get paid”

January 8, 2019 at 11:42 AM

Donna Kelly outside the Freer Gallery of Art, where she works as a security guard. She will miss her first full paycheck this week. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

Donna Kelly dumped a pile of bills on a table at the office of the union that represents low-wage contractors, including janitors, security guards and cafeteria workers, locked out of their jobs by the government shutdown.

Kelly, 63, is one of them. For the past four years, she has worked as a security guard at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery and the Freer Gallery of Art. She earns $15.72 an hour, barely enough to pay the rent on her subsidized apartment on Capitol Hill and meet the rest of her monthly expenses. Now she is facing the loss of her paycheck as the partial shutdown enters its third week — a scary prospect.

“We have one more check coming,” said Kelly, a shop steward for the Service Employees International Union. “For me, it’s not a full check. If I don’t work, my bills don’t get paid. The reality is frightening.”

Related: [For these federal workers, shutdown means weighing which bills to pay]

More than 800,000 federal employees will begin missing paychecks this week because of the shutdown. The partial closure of the federal government began Dec. 22 after Congress refused to give President Trump $5.7 billion to build a wall on the southern border — an impasse over federal spending that has come at the expense of nonessential government workers.

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At a roundtable organized by Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) on Jan.7, a group of federal employees called on President Trump to stop playing politics and put them back to work. (Lee Powell/The Washington Post)

“Federal employees feel really helpless,” said Tony Reardon, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, which represents 150,000 members at 33 federal agencies and departments. “They’ve been thrown into a fight that is not of their making. It is not a fight they created or have the ability to resolve. There is a great deal of fear, anxiety and anger.”

The average take-home pay for many members of the American Federation of Government Employees is about $500 a week. The fear of missing even one paycheck has thrown many households in a tailspin. And whenever the government reopens, it is unlikely that federal contract workers such as Kelly will get back pay for the time they are out of work.

Inside the union office in Northwest Washington, Kelly pulled bills from the pile on the table.

“This one right here is my car insurance,” said Kelly, the mother of six adult children and grandmother of 11. “That is $198.26 for the month of January.”

She grabbed another: “This is my AARP cellphone bill. That is $52.20.” Her calculations continued: “This one is my Pepco bill, which is $119.75. Here’s my life insurance bill. This is my car note, $386. It has not been paid for January. Everything is due.”

Her money, she says, will not last through this month.

Related: [A diplomat paying her bills by writing eyeliner reviews? It’s happening.]

Her last day at work was New Year’s Day.

She was assigned to guard “Japan Modern: Prints in the Age of Photography” at Freer/Sackler, the Smithsonian museums dedicated to Asian art. Though the Freer is tough on her feet because it has no carpet, it also contains one of her favorite places in the complex: the Peacock Room. She immerses herself in the “harmony in blue and gold,” the richness of the wallpaper, the brilliant blues and greens and metallic gold leaf. In some ways, the room transports her. And she shares its history with visitors.

“I love to tell the story of the Peacock Room. I tell people it’s a room within a room,” Kelly said. “It was a dining room in a mansion in London. It makes me happy to tell the story. Once they know more about the story, it’s like the room comes to life. ”

At the end of her Jan. 1 shift, she and other guards were told not to report to work the next day. “My feeling was, ‘Wow, this is really happening,’ ” she said. “ ‘I hope it doesn’t stay shut down too long.’ ”

On Jan. 2, Kelly woke and checked her phone for news about the negotiations between the White House and Congress. There was no progress.

“I had a hard time getting myself together that morning,” Kelly said. “I guess I was upset.” She left her apartment a little after 11 and took the bus to the unemployment office on Minnesota Avenue NE.

Kelly, who worked as a nursing assistant and in a few other jobs before becoming a security guard, said it was the first time she applied for unemployment.

Right now, she said, she does not want to look for other jobs. She wants to go back to her security job at the museum.

She is trying to decide what she cannot live without. “I want to keep my health insurance,” said Kelly, who has high blood pressure. “I have to be able to pay for my medication. Hypertension is nothing to play with. This is a life-and-death situation for me.”

She also needs to get her car repaired.

Over the weekend, her family offered to help.

“One of my daughters said, ‘Don’t worry. When you have to go to the doctor, I will give you money for the co-pay,’ ” Kelly said. “My youngest daughter called from the grocery store to ask what did I need. My son said when his car is fixed, he would get my car fixed.” Maybe, she says, if the shutdown goes on longer, she will try to drive for Uber.

Her granddaughter, who is saving for her wedding, slipped Kelly $70 and told her that it was not much but that she hoped it could help. Her siblings gave her a card with $250 in it.

She appreciated the help. “I’m one of those who don’t like to ask,” she said.

A couple of days ago, she got a call from the unemployment office. Her application had been processed. “They said they will verify the furlough and someone will get back to me,” Kelly said.

Until then, she will keep watching the news and hoping for a deal. “I tell myself it’s going to get better, but the question is when,” she said. “You find yourself not sleeping well at night. I’m constantly wondering when this nightmare will end.”


DeNeen L. Brown, who has been an award-winning staff writer in The Washington Post Metro, Magazine and Style sections, has also worked as the Canada bureau chief for The Washington Post. As a foreign correspondent, she wrote dispatches from Greenland, Haiti, Nunavut and an icebreaker in the Northwest Passage.

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