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Coast Guard families told they can have garage sales to cope with government shutdown

‘Bankruptcy is a last option,’ the service said in a tip sheet published on a website.

Out of work and behind on her bills, a furloughed FDA employee in Ohio says she may have to leave government service if the shutdown goes on much longer. (Video: Ray Whitehouse/The Washington Post)

Employees of the U.S. Coast Guard who are facing a long U.S. government shutdown just received a suggestion: To get by without pay, consider holding a garage sale, babysitting, dog-walking or serving as a “mystery shopper.”

The suggestions were part of a five-page tip sheet published by the Coast Guard Support Program, an employee-assistance arm of the service often known as CG SUPRT. It is designated to offer Coast Guard members help with mental-health issues or other concerns about their lives, including financial wellness.

“Bankruptcy is a last option,” the document said.

The Coast Guard receives funding from the Department of Homeland Security and is subjected to the shuttering of parts of the government along with DHS’s other agencies. That stands in contrast to other military services, which are part of the Defense Department and have funding.

[Previous coverage: ‘This is a crisis’: Pay for Coast Guard families uncertain amid government shutdown]

The tip sheet, titled “Managing your finances during a furlough,” applies to the Coast Guard’s 8,500-person civilian workforce. About 6,400 of them are on indefinite furlough, while 2,100 are working without pay after being identified as essential workers, said Lt. Cmdr. Scott McBride, a service spokesman. They were last paid for the two-week period ended Dec. 22.

“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 tip sheet said. “Stay in charge of the situation by getting a clear understanding of what’s happening.”

The Coast Guard removed the tip sheet from the support program’s website late Wednesday morning after The Washington Post inquired about it.

For federal employee Nicole Bryner, the partial government shutdown has left her without a paycheck, and paying for child care she can’t use. (Video: Whitney Shefte/The Washington Post)

The suggestions do not “reflect the Coast Guard’s current efforts to support our workforce during this lapse in appropriations,” McBride said. “As such, this guidance has been removed.”

The situation shows the increasing strain that the service is under as the partial government shutdown continues. About 41,000 active-duty Coast Guardsmen are working without pay. Their next check is due Jan. 15.

Overall, about 420,000 government employees are working under the promise they will be paid retroactively, with nearly another 350,000 on furlough at home.

Adm. Karl Schultz, the Coast Guard commandant, said in an email to his service’s personnel on Wednesday that he recognizes “the concern and anxiety” across the fleet.

“Uncertainty fuels anxiety and requires strong and steady leadership navigating forward,” Schultz wrote. “Now is the time to “lead through leaders” and I call on you to be intrusive leaders at your respective units, demonstrating empathy, conveying key information, and identifying and ensuring our most vulnerable shipmates get the assistance they need.”

The Coast Guard’s status as an unfunded military service increasingly has become a political issue, as family members share their worries about a shutdown with no end in sight amid a political dispute about President Trump’s proposed border wall. Coast Guardsmen rely not only on paychecks, but also now-frozen government allowances for housing in expensive coastal cities where many are assigned.

Late last month, the Coast Guard announced it had found enough money to pay its service members one last time through the end of the year. The Trump administration took credit afterward, releasing a statement that said the president and some of his staff members had worked “round the clock” to address the issue.

The Coast Guard’s situation has stirred up old frustrations that the sea service’s contributions are not as appreciated in Washington as those of the rest of the military.

Among some military families, it also has undermined some good will that Trump established with the Coast Guard by praising their “brand,” spotlighting their efforts in hurricanes and promising funding for icebreaker ships to boost polar security. Funding for those ships is no longer a certainty this year, with the Senate version of an appropriations bill including $750 million to begin construction of a new ships and the House version including no money.

Coast Guard leaders have sought to provide as much information as possible to its people about the shutdown, and offer suggestions for where financial assistance might be possible. It also released a letter for families to provide to creditors while seeking temporary financial relief.

“This lapse in appropriations is beyond our members' control and is expected to be a temporary situation,” said the Dec. 27 letter, signed by Rear Adm. Matthew W. Shibley. “We appreciate your organization’s understanding and flexibility in working with Coast Guard members who request forbearance on their obligations until this situation is resolved.”

A bipartisan effort to get the Coast Guard paid through the shutdown was launched in Congress last week, but it isn’t clear if or how quickly lawmakers might vote on the proposed “Pay Our Coast Guard Act."

Federal contract workers like Pablo Lazaro worry about saving money and paying bills as the government shutdown continues. (Video: Jorge Ribas/The Washington Post)

Coast Guard family members said Wednesday that there are no easy solutions as the political standoff continues, but that they are getting by.

Jacqueline Esparza, whose husband is in the Coast Guard and stationed in Seattle, said not all families affiliated with the service live in houses where having a garage sale is possible. Service members, who are still required to work, also are not easily able to find supplemental income, she said.

“Doing odd jobs and selling items we don’t need anymore is a temporary fix,” she said. “It’s not going to help us pay the rent.”

Natalie Daniels, whose husband is stationed in San Diego, said her family’s situation isn’t “dire just yet,” but missing the coming paycheck would definitely “start the clock” on that. Their family includes four children.

“I am not afraid of this shutdown,” she said. “I am afraid of the current political discourse that may discourage future generations from wanting to serve their country on the basis of being used as political pawns."

Daniels said both political parties are “playing a game of political chicken with Americans,” and it needs to stop.

"Frankly, I am exhausted, stressed, and emotionally drained by our current political climate, but if you were to ask my husband what I’ve said to him when he’s called every night, he would tell you I’ve said, ‘We are fine,’” she said. “That’s how a military spouse supports her husband, and that is how a military spouse supports their country.”

This story was originally published Jan. 9, and updated Jan. 10 with additional reporting.