The pantry was looking awfully empty, but now there will be mac and cheese, followed by more mac and cheese, and then maybe on the next day, how about maybe just a little mac and cheese? Because it’s free, the latest giveaway for federal workers who are not being paid for their work, and because, in Shawanda Hardy’s house, there’s a son who’s in middle school and getting taller every hour or so, and the rent went up $50 last month, and even if the government says you should ask your landlord to let things slide for a while, that’s not really how life works, is it?
“God is going to see us through,” said Hardy, a single mother in Prince George’s County, Md.,who works as an assistant to the head of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Except she’s not working now, as the politicians in Washington chose to stop paying 800,000 federal workers because they couldn’t agree on whether to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexican border.
That logic is mostly lost on the millions of Americans in families where a government job used to mean security. But on this day, 26 days into the shutdown, there didn’t seem to be much of a premium on logic.
Achingly long queues at airport security meant some Transportation Security Administration employees had had it with working without pay and were not showing up. Headhunters said government workers were calling, more each day, asking about jobs in the private economy. A NASA scientist spent his day selling real estate. A State Department lawyer flew to Santa Fe, N.M., for a few days of warmth and spa treatments after running out of household projects to complete — and then, just as she was landing in New Mexico, her bosses summoned all employees back to work next week, because someone had found extra money to pay them.
Thursday, like every day, brought moments that played tricks on the minds of federal workers, yet did nothing to put them back on the payroll. President Trump barred House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) from using military aircraft to visit troops in Afghanistan, because “it would be better if you were in Washington negotiating with me.” The U.S. Labor Department rejected the D.C. mayor’s request to make more federal workers eligible for unemployment benefits.
So the shutdown continued. It looked like this: Long, lazy lunches with fellow furloughed folks from the office. Anxious rewrites of the old résumé. That impossible clutter in the basement, finally attacked because if not now, when?
Politically, the shutdown is a beached whale, stuck in place, with no apparent way back to the water. Even though a large majority of Americans oppose using public employees as a bargaining chip, and even though most voters blame Trump for the shutdown, neither side in Washington has much incentive to compromise. Both sides’ bases have hardened in their positions for and against the wall.
For most Americans, life has proceeded as normal. Only 18 percent said the shutdown has inconvenienced them at all. They worked and they got paid, which would hardly be worth pointing out except that almost 1 percent of U.S. workers haven’t seen a dime in the past month.
But look closer on this one day in the life of the shutdown and things do appear a bit off kilter:
On the Mall in Washington, you had your choice of parking spaces, which generally happens only on Christmas. Tourists wandered aimlessly, wondering what to do because federally funded museums were shuttered.
Johannes Schmidt, 23, a dental technician from Germany, zipped to and fro on an electric scooter — “We don’t have these yet back home,” he said — taking pictures of closed buildings. Instead of viewing masterworks inside the National Gallery of Art, he settled for standing beneath its majestic steps, reading a National Park Service plaque that spelled out “James Garfield’s Legacy.”
Across town, there were hardly any parking spots within blocks of a pop-up shop that Kraft Foods opened in an industrial space in Northeast Washington, offering anyone with a government ID a brown paper grocery bag full of the company’s products, most of them bright orange. No charge, just a request that the workers “pay it forward to your favorite charity” once their paychecks resume.
Nearly 200 workers — most of them, like Hardy, loading up on mac and cheese — arrived in the first two hours. One of the people helping them collect food was Taylor McBride, herself a furloughed fed, picking up a few hours of work at the Kraft shop because the bills must be paid and, well, she was going a little stir-crazy sitting at home in Alexandria, Va.
“That first week, I barely did anything,” said McBride, 31, a media archivist at the Smithsonian Institution. She was too bummed by the idea that “the president just doesn’t care about his own government’s workers,” the sense that many Americans don’t respect the work federal employees do for them.
Then, McBride got busy. She watched the Marie Kondo show on Netflix and “organized my whole closet,” she said. But there were bills to pay, and “unfortunately mortgage companies don’t care what the president says,” McBride said. So here she was at Kraft, earning a few bucks and, maybe even better, seeing fellow feds smiling and laughing, something they haven’t done much lately.
The shutdown for many has meant endless calls to the mortgage broker, the bank, the electric company, the impenetrable maze that cellphone companies have erected to keep you from speaking to a human. Can I skip a month? Will you slap on late fees?
Tajuana Norris’s mortgage company is, she said, “not sympathetic.” A federal worker for 28 years whose agency has required her to work without pay, she was at the mac and cheese place, too, stocking up because the bank account is bare.
At the office, before using lunch break to get the groceries, Norris and colleagues held what’s become a daily ritual, “a meeting to make sure people’s spirits are up.”
Norris’s spirits are in decent shape. She looks over at Capitol Hill and the White House and sees not evil people, but people who simply cannot understand, the kind of people who are elected to pass a budget but instead debate retweeting rapper Cardi B’s foul-mouthed rant against the shutdown.
“Trying to decide whether or not to retweet the Cardi B video,” tweeted Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii.)
“Omg, I had the same argument with myself 30 minutes ago!” replied Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.)
“Guys, I’m holding my breath. Are you gonna RT Cardi B or not?” asked Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.)
Norris sighed. “Those wealthy people have never had to struggle, never been poor, and they don’t have empathy,” she said, “so I can’t be mad at them. I do need them to get it together, but I can’t be mad, because I love my job, I love what I do for my country, and I love the people I work with.”
In Kansas City, Mo., where Mariam Hicks works at the Internal Revenue Service making sure the people who process tax returns are doing it right, the shutdown has meant a change of wardrobe as well as a gaping hole in her bank account.
Hicks, 36, usually wears a blouse and slacks to work. But this morning, she slipped into a new uniform: a black T-shirt with “Chiefs” written in sequins.
“Welcome to Rally House!” she shouted as a customer entered her temporary workplace, a downtown sports apparel store. Here, she’s surrounded by football jerseys, novelty socks and bottles of hot sauce — not quite what she keeps in her cubicle at the IRS, where she has spent the past nine years.
On Dec. 22, Hicks was promoted to manager. Her salary swelled from $56,000 to $62,000. “About time,” she thought.
Then the government shut down. She never got to move into her new office.
Now she’s hawking sports gear for $9 an hour.
“It’s still more than I’d get from collecting unemployment,” she said, folding a red pullover.
Hicks was down to her last $700 — $155 shy of her January rent payment — when she spotted the Rally House ad on Facebook, offering to hire any furloughed employee on the spot.
She showed up Monday and started Wednesday.
But her new gig could crumble at any moment: If her boss at the IRS summons her back to work without pay, she would have to clock in or risk losing her career.
She tried not to think of her cellphone in her jeans back pocket. The IRS announced Tuesday it was calling back 36,000 federal employees as tax refund season kicks off. The agency has nearly 5,000 workers in Kansas City, Mo.
Hicks’s hours at Rally House, meanwhile, could evaporate if the Kansas City Chiefs lose the AFC championship game Sunday against the New England Patriots, ending their season and squelching demand for local swag.
For federal workers accustomed to the steady paycheck, it can take a while to admit how precarious life has become. At a food pantry in Ogden, Utah, Michelle Swiger told her friend to take the turkey.
Rachel Wayment had declined the free bird while picking up split peas, canned tuna, frozen steak and salad greens at a Catholic Community Services of Northern Utah facility that opened its shelves to federal employees Thursday morning. Wayment didn’t know how to cook a turkey, so she figured someone else should take it.
Many of the feds who showed up, like tax examiners Swiger and Wayment, work at the IRS, which has a large office in Ogden.
Swiger, who has worked at the IRS for 31 years, saw on Facebook that Wayment, who has 28 years in, needed a ride and picked her up.
Wayment had been up since 4:30 a.m. She turned on MSNBC, which she’s been watching obsessively, hoping for word of a breakthrough. When she gets bored — “I’m tired of hearing about [special counsel Robert S.] Mueller,” she said — she binges on crime dramas like “Bones” and “Person of Interest.”
“I just loop those, ’cause everything gets resolved,” she said. “My husband goes, ‘You’ve already seen that. You know how it ends.’ ”
“Yah, and it ends good,” she said.
At the food pantry, Wayment took the turkey. Then, Thursday night, after washing clothes and going to see “Welcome to Marwen” at the discount movie house, she was thrilled to get the call to return to work, even if it was without pay: “To feel useful, to feel wanted, to feel needed. It’s a relief.”
Being told you may not work sounds a bit like a vacation at first, but after four weeks of thinking about why your job is not deemed essential, existential questions creep in.
Allison Youngblood has started to look for jobs in private industry, even if it means giving up her dream of a career at NASA. A young astrophysicist who works in the two-year postdoctoral program at Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, she got an email alerting her that her stipend would cease Jan. 18.
Her work in a lab, studying small and distant stars as part of the effort to find planets beyond this solar system, would halt. Unlike civil servants, the postdocs aren’t guaranteed back pay when the government reopens.
Still, planets keep spinning and “our work doesn’t stop,” Youngblood said. She is supposed to lead an observation of Sunday’s lunar eclipse, testing new ways to look for signs of life on far-off planets.
Because of the shutdown, she can’t access her grant money or talk to her civil servant colleagues. She planned to do the work unpaid, because her career depends on it.
René Gwinn isn’t looking to go anywhere but back to the Securities and Exchange Commission, where she schedules meetings and trainings — she calls herself a “details person.”
Four weeks at home was way too quiet. “I was too bored,” said Gwinn, 56, as she stashed a screen-cleaning cloth into the bottom of a pouch, adding a packet of hand warmers, chewing gum, hand sanitizer, a pen and some candies — all in one of 25,000 bulging red pouches to be distributed to first responders in the Washington area as a Martin Luther King Jr. Day gift.
Volunteering was a “chance to get out of the house and be with people,” Gwinn said. Being at home while her husband, an IT program manager at the Secret Service, works without pay, has been a lonely, anxious time.
She has tried to keep busy. She wrote to her senator, Mark R. Warner (D-Va.), and took part in a protest in front of the White House. She finished Michelle Obama’s memoir, “Becoming.”
But she spends much of her alone time figuring out how to cover the bills. To make her monthly payments of $5,700. Gwinn and her husband, who live in Centreville, Va., have dug into money they had been saving for a long-planned summer vacation to Alaska.
Gwinn knows others face more dire situations. But she worries about the trickle-down effect of her changed life.
She’s saving $150 a week on the care of two cairn terriers, Tater and Cash, but that means the dog-care service loses that money. She’s using her slow-cooker instead of going out to dinner, saving an additional $125 or so each week, but that is money not going to local cafes and restaurants.
It can all be too much to consider. At the end of her two-hour pouch-packing session, Gwinn needed to leave promptly to feed and walk the dogs. Cash, she said, seems ready for life to return to normal.
“He has that look,” Gwinn said. “When are you going back to work?”
Seventy-five hundred miles from Washington, under a heavy smog, hundreds of employees arrived at the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi, by car, motorcycle, scooter, bicycle and on foot.
At one of the largest U.S. diplomatic missions in the world, the scene looked fairly normal: Visa seekers lined up in the predawn chill as they do every weekday. Security personnel manned the gates and diplomats filed into the elegant building.
But public events are suspended, as is the embassy’s social media presence. And many diplomats in Delhi worked without pay this week, said one diplomat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak with a reporter.
On this day, the diplomat did what he would normally do, meeting contacts in India’s government and private sector. He had a memo to be sent and an analysis due back in Washington. His day would end a little earlier than it did pre-shutdown.
“We’ve been told, ‘Don’t burn the midnight oil like you normally do’,” he said. “People want to be paid for what they do, but look, people don’t do this for the money.”
Similarly, at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, some workers are being paid while others are not. Some programs continue, while others are shuttered. Yet when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited the embassy last week, no employees asked him about the shutdown, according to one embassy official.
“Right now, morale is fine,” she said. “There is still some job security. You are, after all, working for the U.S. Embassy.”
As the sun set over the U.S. border, a long string of cars, pickup trucks and tractor trailers stretched between Nogales, Mexico, and Nogales, Ariz., where federal officials are working for free.
At rush hour, roughly half the passenger lanes heading into the United States through the Mariposa Port of Entry blinked in red letters “Closed,” or “Cerrado.”
Mariposa is one of the border’s more modern facilities, with airy glass windows, desert landscaping and a steel-slat fence — the kind Trump wants so badly that he shut down the government to build more of it.
Inside the Port of Entry’s pedestrian entrance, two officers screened passports; several stations sat empty.
“It is what it is,” said one officer, who declined to be named.
In Washington, scene of the crime, about 50 furloughed employees gathered for a free concert in their honor at a venue called the Rock and Roll Hotel. Promoters billed the event as “FED UP!”
After so many days stuck inside from snowy weather and furlough, there was cheer simply in being together, drinking $3 Pabst Blue Ribbons and eating chicken tenders the size of small planks. Folks brought their kids, some wearing T-shirts that said, “Mother Should I Trust the Government.”
Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall” was rewritten for the occasion: “We don’t need disinformation/We don’t need no thought control/No dark sarcasm from the White House. Leaders, leave those feds alone!”
One of the bands, G.O.A.T. Rodeo, featured lead singer Stacy Puente, a furloughed lawyer from the Securities and Exchange Commission, who never imagined when she began planning the concert two weeks ago that they’d still be out of work.
“This is insanity,” she said.
It had been a particularly galling day on Capitol Hill, with the back-and-forth between Pelosi and Trump over whether the State of the Union address should proceed during the shutdown, and Trump abruptly canceling Pelosi’s trip.
“They’re acting like 2-year-olds,” said Jason Anthony, 48, a furloughed SEC lawyer. “I’ve seen my kid’s kindergarten class settle disagreements better than that.”
Russ Crabtree, 56, a furloughed contractor from Silver Spring, Md., said he had been forced to postpone a planned visit to see his cancer-stricken mother in Lake Geneva, Wis. “That was a tough conversation to have,” he said.
Susan Hartford and her husband, James, both furloughed IRS lawyers, have done all the chores. They cleaned out the closets in their Arlington, Va., home and took clothes to Goodwill, and gave the trim a fresh coat of paint. Boredom has set in.
Their 8-year-old daughter, Lily, asked, “Mommy, are we poor?”
“I said, ‘No, we’re not poor, we’re just not working right now,’ ” Hartford recounted.
As the show began, the emcee hollered, “Are you fed up?”
“Yeah!” the crowd hollered back. Then Puente and her bandmates took the stage for the first of the angry songs she promised: AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell.”
Fisher and Gowen reported from Washington and Paquette reported from Kansas City, Mo. Dan Lamothe in Cape May, N.J.; Heather May in Ogden, Utah; Brittney Martin in Houston; Sudarsan Raghavan in Cairo; Maria Sacchetti in Nogales, Ariz.; Joanna Slater in New Delhi and Mark Berman, Sarah Kaplan, Michael Laris, Justin Moyer and Frances Stead Sellers in Washington contributed to this report.