Gordy Sachs, 58, grinned sheepishly, staring at the table as his wife, sitting next to him in their dining room, explained how much Gordy enjoys working for Uncle Sam.
“His job is basically his life,” Lisa Sachs was saying. “I mean, it’s always a struggle getting him to turn off and take a break. He’d work constantly if he could.”
Glancing at him, she added in a rueful voice, “You know, I actually used to get mad at him for that.” And Gordy nodded, saying: “It’s true. I love what I do. It’s my passion.”
He’s an expert in fire safety and disaster management at the U.S. Forest Service. His biweekly salary — when he isn’t furloughed — is about $5,200 before taxes. “I’ve explained that my philosophy is, I work very hard to keep them safe and happy,” he said, meaning Lisa and their disabled daughter, Brandy, 33, who lives with them in Bristow, Va., 40 miles southwest of Washington.
But now, “I’m really anxious all the time,” he said, mainly because of Brandy’s chronic illness and hefty medical expenses. And because their money is dwindling.
“Never-ending worry,” said Lisa, also 58. “Neither one of us has been sleeping very well, not knowing if we’ll have enough to take care of her.”
This was Thursday morning, Day 20 of the partial government shutdown, and roughly 800,000 workers, including Gordy Sachs, were about to experience their first payless payday during the funding impasse between President Trump and congressional Democrats. The Sachses, a one-income family, have sufficient savings to make their February mortgage and minivan payments and to cover other expenses for a few more weeks, after which, if the standoff continues, they’ll be broke, Gordy said.
They’re far from alone in their dread.
Friday marked the beginning of a new phase in the second-longest U.S. government closure in history, as across the country, innumerable workers living paycheck to paycheck must find another way. They’re putting off bills and selling possessions, struggling to be frugal and pleading with creditors to be patient. The shutdown isn’t a just a looming threat to their wallets anymore. Now, if out of habit they look at their mobile banking apps, they’ll see no direct deposits.
Now it’s real.
For virtually every idled civil servant and essential employee forced to work without compensation, there’s a story of personal disruption and inconvenience. The Sachses are better off than some and in worse straits than others. But “we’re all being held hostage,” Lisa said. “I mean, put them back to work! Figure this out! It’s every government employee: We all have bills. We all have to eat. And we have Brandy to think about.”
In 1998, when she was 13, Brandy was found to be suffering from reflex sympathetic dystrophy syndrome, a rare nerve affliction with no known cure. Her skin is acutely sensitive to even mild irritations, which aggravate her persistent, debilitating pain.
“She can’t go outside in the sun,” Lisa said.
“Or the wind,” Gordy said, “or the rain.”
“Or anything,” Lisa said. “She basically has to stay indoors.”
Brandy, who has a college degree in English and philosophy, lives in the finished basement of her parents’ 4,000-square-foot house in Prince William County. She used a wheelchair for 10 years, starting as a teenager, but now she’s able to walk haltingly with a forearm crutch. She gets a federal disability allotment of about $400 a month, which Gordy said isn’t nearly enough to pay for the medications she needs.
“Because her disease is considered rare, there aren’t really meds that are designed specifically for her condition,” he said. “Because the meds she uses are typically meant for other diseases, often our insurance won’t cover them.”
As a result, the Sachses’ out-of-pocket drugstore expenses average about $1,200 monthly, Gordy said. That’s on top of a $2,700 mortgage payment; $380 for their 2015 Toyota Sienna; and utility bills (electricity, gas heat, water, trash collection, cable TV, Internet, phones) totaling about $1,000 a month on average — plus groceries, homeowners association dues, commuter train fares, auto insurance, gasoline.
Plus this, plus that.
Of their four charge accounts, Gordy said, only one has “quite a large” sum of available credit, and he keeps that card stashed away. “There’s Brandy downstairs, who could take a turn for the worse at any time and have go to the hospital,” he said. “To me, that credit card is our medical emergency cushion, and I hope we don’t ever have to use it.”
In addition to needing expensive medicines, Brandy has to undergo outpatient drug-infusion treatments every three or four months. “Insurance doesn’t cover it all,” Gordy said. Lisa, who is Brandy’s caregiver, hasn’t worked outside the home in more than 20 years, and she can’t start now, because she’s healing from recent neck surgery. With only a few weeks’ worth of cash reserves in the bank, and no end in sight to the war of political attrition between Trump and his Capitol Hill foes, the couple have been lowering the thermostat and skimping at the supermarket, part of their overall belt-tightening.
“Using up what’s in the freezer,” Lisa said.
“Stopped eating out,” said Gordy.
“Keeping the lights off when we’re not in the room.”
“Cable TV might have to go.”
“Paying the minimum on the credit cards.”
“Not driving if we don’t have to.”
“I would love a haircut,” Gordy said, “but that’ll have to wait.”
Whom does he blame? He won’t say. “I’ll only tell you, by nature and by job, I’m a collaborator. So when there’s a disagreement and people don’t collaborate, I get annoyed.”
He grew up in Fairfax County and became a volunteer firefighter as a teenager. By the time he graduated from Virginia Tech in 1983 with a bachelor’s degree in vocational education, he also had associate degrees in fire service management, fire administration and fire investigation. After many years as a paid firefighter in Virginia and Florida and as a safety-training specialist for the U.S. Fire Administration, he joined the Forest Service in 2007 to help coordinate disaster-management operations.
Three years ago, he was promoted to a supervisory job at the agency’s Washington headquarters. He’s a GS-14 making $135,000 annually. Like hundreds of thousands of civil servants (about a quarter of the government workforce) who won’t get paid this week, he is an anonymous cog in the vast machinery of the federal bureaucracy — a man unnoticed by the citizenry, yet one of the multitudes who collectively make the country function.
On a normal weekday, his alarm goes off at 4:55 a.m. and he is out the door an hour later, driving six miles to a Virginia Railway Express depot. The 6:22 a.m. train gets him to L’Enfant Plaza in the District in 61 minutes. He dozes or reads work papers during the ride. Then it’s a 12-minute walk to the Forest Service offices at 14th Street and Independence Avenue SW. At 7:35 a.m., he climbs the stairs to the third floor, to his workstation in a row of workstations, empties his backpack and gets down to business.
He is chief of the branch called “all hazards and international fire support,” which is part of the fire and aviation management program, which is part of the state and private forestry organization of the Forest Service, which is part of the Agriculture Department.
At 4:10 p.m., he leaves in time to catch the 4:33 train home. And like each of those hundreds of thousands of workers, he has a backstory unique to him.
In 2008, he and Lisa sold the house they owned at the time to help raise money for Brandy to join an experimental treatment program in Germany. The trip and the medical costs came to $50,000, uninsured. Their daughter’s condition is somewhat better today as a result. “So it was worth it, and we’d certainly do it again,” he said. “But it took everything we had, all our savings. We had to start over.”
They sat in their dining room Thursday doing arithmetic, adding this bill to that bill and subtracting from bank balances. Gordy’s Forest Service iPhone was on the table in front of him, its screen black. He’s on call in case of a disaster. Maybe suddenly he’ll go from idle and unpaid to working and unpaid. He said he wouldn’t mind.
“A workaholic,” Lisa said, and Gordy smiled.
“She’s not wrong,” he said. “Even my bosses, they’re always emphasizing work-life balance. And my boss has gotten on me more than once over the years that my definition of balance is perhaps not entirely correct.”
“No,” Lisa said, “it’s definitely not correct.”
He hasn’t looked for a part-time job. “I thought about it, but I’m on call. If something happens, I have to be there within two hours. So how can I get a job and say, ‘I’ll work for you, but if my phone rings, I have to leave right away’?”
Instead, he putters around the house, straightening frames on walls, rearranging furniture and vacuuming in hard-to-reach nooks and crannies. After a meeting between Trump and Democrats ended in acrimony Wednesday, Gordy decided to apply for unemployment compensation.
“I have no choice,” he said.
Because the financial vise is starting to close.
“I can’t feel it yet. But I know it’s there. I know it’s coming.”