“Sells for $93.88 at Walmart. Asking $10,” a government worker wrote on a Craigslist ad for a Lulu Ladybug rocking chair. “We need money to pay bills.”
As hundreds of thousands of federal workers brace for their first missed paychecks of the government shutdown this week, some have become immersed in the frantic financial calculus of choosing what they can live without.
In the United States, living paycheck to paycheck is disturbingly common, regardless of profession or location. A recent report from the Federal Reserve revealed how little cushion most Americans have in their budgets: Four in 10 adults say they couldn’t produce $400 in an emergency without sliding into debt or selling something, according to the figures that surveyed households in 2017, a relatively prosperous year for the American economy.
But the shutdown, which began just before Christmas, took many federal workers by surprise and is lasting longer than most expected. That has left furloughed employees stuck at home, sifting through garages and closets, basements and bookshelves to find possessions and personal treasures to sell.
“You have to take a kind of coldhearted look at things around you and decide what would be marketable to someone else,” said Jay Elhard, on furlough from his job as a media specialist at Acadia National Park in Maine.
Elhard, who has worked for the National Park Service since 2005, started a Facebook group for people to buy items from furloughed federal workers. But so far it’s just been him trying to sell things: copies of his graduate thesis from Columbia University about wolves in Yellowstone, a carbon-fiber backpack he took on hiking trips, a painting of Polychrome Overlook in Denali National Park. The painting was a window to his years running the roads there as a park ranger. Now he’s hoping it’ll sell so he can put the money toward his next mortgage payment.
Guidance from government offices have provided little comfort so far, some workers said. No one in Washington seems to know how long the partial government shutdown will go on, but there’s been little reason to believe the end is close. Meanwhile, the Office of Management and Budget has provided sparse advice other than encouraging workers to contact creditors and mortgage companies before debts become due. The Coast Guard published a tip sheet this week suggesting employees hold garage sales or sell things online, walk dogs or babysit, or “become a mystery shopper” to get by.
“Bankruptcy is a last option,” the tip sheet read.
“While it may be uncomfortable to deal with the hard facts, it’s best to avoid the 'hide your head in the sand’ reaction,” the document read. “Stay in charge of the situation by getting a clear understanding of what’s happening.”
The Coast Guard removed the tip sheet from its website late Wednesday morning after The Washington Post inquired about it.
The suggestions do not “reflect the Coast Guard’s current efforts to support our workforce during this lapse in appropriations,” said Lt. Cmdr. Scott McBride, a service spokesman. “As such, this guidance has been removed.”
President Trump, when asked about the hardship facing workers, said federal employees “are on my side.”
“You take a look at social media, so many of those people saying ‘it’s very hard for me, it’s very hard for my family, but Mr. President you’re doing the right thing. Get it done.’ They’re patriots,” he said.
Anna Cory, a librarian in Morrisville, N.C., who works as a contractor for the Environmental Protection Agency, is running a “Government shutdown online yard sale” on Facebook, where she’s selling rare books from the 1800s. She held the worn leather volumes in her hands to photograph them, splaying the most beautiful pages to show off sheet music and ornate portraits.
“As a librarian, that’s what I value, that’s what I treasure. It hurts to let this stuff go,” Cory said. “I’ve had a couple friends who’ve said, ‘I wish we could buy your things and just give them back to you,' which would be fantastic but it’s not always feasible.”
Two weeks into the shutdown, Cory, 39, got engaged. Right now, she wants to be picking a wedding date and searching for a house where she and her fiance can start their new life together. All that’s on hold now. Along with selling things on Facebook, she’s looking for temporary jobs or even other full-time positions, although it pains her to think of leaving the EPA. This is the second shutdown Cory has endured in her two years there, but last time the EPA’s budget allowed it to stay open. When the current one began, she took comfort in co-workers who had been around for the 2013 shutdown and who were confident the whole thing would be short-lived.
“All of us were unprepared for this to go on so long,” Cory said.
If the shutdown extends into next week, it will become the longest continuous closing of the government in U.S. history, topping the 21-day shutdown under President Bill Clinton that extended from December 1995 to January 1996. Hungry for signs of resolution, many furloughed workers have been glued to their televisions and news feeds, but there’s been little to feel optimistic about.
Determined to secure more than $5 billion in funding for a wall on the U.S. southern border, Trump has said he’s prepared for the shutdown to last “months or even years.” At a high-level meeting about the shutdown on Wednesday, Trump asked Democratic leaders whether they would support his wall if he reopened the government. They said “no.” Trump walked out, later calling the meeting “a total waste of time.” Democratic leaders chided him for “throwing another temper tantrum.”
For some workers, the endless infighting and political turbulence have eroded any sense of stability they felt working for the federal government. Joseph Simeone, a safety inspector with the Federal Aviation Administration in Virginia, said he was partially drawn to his position because of the job security. Now he feels like the uncertainty is a “constant threat.”
“I don’t have a lot of faith that this will be resolved, even if they do fund the wall or if the president ends up allowing the funding that has been put forward,” Simeone said. “We’re probably just going to have to go through this again later. It’s starting to make me feel like I have a better shot switching back to the industry.”
A few years away from retirement, Simeone, 53, is suddenly applying for unemployment and for part-time work assembling outdoor furniture. In the meantime, he’s selling things on Craigslist in a “Shutdown Special”: two guitars, an amplifier, a massage table and his 14-year-old television. Not much has sold yet, but it’s all he has to offer.
In emails and text messages, Simeone checks in with his co-workers who feel adrift in the shutdown. Some jokingly offered to go build the wall themselves if it’d bring an end to things. Others tried to enjoy having time to slow down and read or work out. At night, Simeone said he struggles to sleep, consumed by worry about what’s to come.
“I have $24 in cash on me, I don’t use credit cards and I have $2.40 left in my bank account,” Simeone said. “If we miss this upcoming paycheck, I will be completely broke.”
Dan Lamothe contributed to this report.