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For these federal workers, shutdown means weighing which bills to pay

A group of federal employees in Maryland say the partial government shutdown has left them scrambling for money, and they blame President Trump. (Video: Lee Powell/The Washington Post)

Tyra McClelland has applied for free or reduced-price lunch for her child and contemplated whether to purchase allergy medicine or food.

Johnny Zuagar knows he needs to sit his 6- and 8-year-old sons down for “the talk.” But so far, he has avoided explaining to them why Daddy isn’t going to work in the morning.

And Tryshanda Moton, who is supposed to close on the purchase of a new home at the end of the month, is unsure how she will deal with the bank’s request for two recent pay stubs.

McClelland, Zuagar and Moton were three of about a dozen federal workers who joined Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) in Largo on Monday to discuss the impact the continuing partial government shutdown is having on them, their families and their co-workers.

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With no end in sight for the stalemate between President Trump and congressional Democrats, the workers, who also serve as union leaders for various federal agencies, talked about the big monthly bills and the process of calling banks and mortgage companies to defer payments.

And they talked about the family obligations that might go unmet.

One employee described not being able to pay for her grandchildren’s clarinet and piano lessons. Another said the sneakers his son needs have moved down on the priority list. Some have savings, they said, but many of the workers they represent are living paycheck to paycheck.

At times, their voices cracked, tinged with fear or anger, as they described themselves as “pawns” in a political game. Their resounding message, one by one, was for Congress to open the federal government and let them get back to work.

“It was said, we’re ‘all Democrats,’ ” Zuagar said, referring to a December tweet by the Republican president about furloughed federal workers. “We’re all human beings. How you treat people matters.”

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McClelland, who works for the D.C. Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency, is considered an essential employee. Unlike some of the other roundtable participants, she has reported to work since the shutdown began more than two weeks ago. But similar to the furloughed employees, she won’t get a paycheck on Friday.

She said she finds herself juggling the cost of her over-the-counter medicines, paying for gasoline to fill her car to make the daily commute to the District from her home in Waldorf and helping her 75-year-old mother, who lives with her.

“She asked me what can she do to help,” McClelland said in an interview after the roundtable. “My mom shouldn’t have to worry about my check.”

When her child recently told her there was no money left in her school lunch account, McClelland applied for the federally funded lunch assistance program.

“I’m trying to figure out how to get my child lunch,” she said, staring at the dozens of television cameras and reporters filling the conference room in a non­descript office building in suburban Maryland — a state that, like Virginia, is among the most affected by the shutdown. “This hurts so much. That’s all I have to say.”

Van Hollen said he is hoping that the GOP-controlled Senate will take up legislation already passed by the Democratic-
majority House to reopen several agencies through the end of the year. But there is no indication that it will happen.

“The longer this goes on, the harder we know it’s going to be,” Van Hollen said.

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Moton, who works for NASA as an aerospace engineer, said she moved to Prince George’s County eight years ago for the security of a federal job and the paycheck that comes with it. She previously worked as a federal contractor.

On Monday, with less than four days before she would miss her paycheck, she said she does not feel secure.

She has spent the past year — and most of her savings — paying down debt to improve her credit score and get the best deal on her new three-bedroom home. The mortgage company hasn’t told her how it will deal with the uncertainty of her financial situation.

“I’m worried that I will have to use those cards now to live, and I should not have to,” Moton said. “What is that going to do to my credit score?”

Zuagar, who works as a statistician for the Census Bureau, has been employed by the federal government for 15 years. He has never considered leaving. Until now.

He says the rhetoric in Washington is different than it has been during other shutdowns he has endured, and he can’t wait months — or years, as Trump has threatened — for the government to be funded again.

“I’ve got to take care of my family,” Zuagar said. “As I look at my kids, I say I can’t go through this all the time. It’s very hard to work for people who don’t seem to care about you.”