The federal budget cuts known as the sequester and the employee furloughs that followed don’t command the attention they once did. For a while, the cuts were all Congress could talk about. Now, many news organizations have moved on to the next big story.
But for federal employees, and an organization seeking to assist them, the cuts are not yesterday’s news. Unpaid leave days mean delinquent bills and lighter wallets. Feds are feeling the pain today.
This is particularly true for workers living near the margin even before the sequester. Already in the third year of a basic pay rate freeze, they simply cannot afford the sequester’s pay cut.
Consider the stories of LaWanda White, a Defense Department employee from Suitland, and Terri Lee-Watford, an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission staffer in Indianapolis.
Both are single mothers, have had trouble meeting their expenses and sought help from the Federal Employee Education & Assistance Fund (FEEA).
FEEA provides loans to federal employees in need, and there has been a lot of need lately. The amount in loans it issued in June doubled from May, and the number related to furloughs skyrocketed.
When Internal Revenue Service workers were hit with unpaid days on three Fridays in May, June and July, requests for FEEA’s assistance rose exponentially, said Steve Bauer, FEEA’s executive director. The number of applications following the second furlough day was double the first, and the number doubled again after the third day.
“The program distributed just under $42,000 in May, only four of [the loans] furlough-related, and nearly $90,000 in June, including 82 loans totaling over $49,000 due to hardships created by unpaid furlough days,” according to an FEEA statement.
The organization is a charity that relies on donations. It isn’t strapped yet, but Bauer said he’s “concerned that there could be a point where we say we can’t help you because we don’t have enough money.”
White and Lee-Watford each received $600 loans from FEEA. Not much, but it certainly helped.
The loan allowed White to make her rent. Eleven furlough days will take 20 percent of her pay through the end of the fiscal year in September.
“I had to get a part-time job,” she said. “That’s the first thing I had to do.”
White is divorced and has four girls, from 11 months to 15 years, living with her. That generates lots of bills. She said Pepco and her car loan company worked with her and agreed to delay payments, but GEICO, her auto insurance company, did not.
The part-time job helps, but not enough. She works a few hours on Saturdays, Sundays and furlough days at a clothing store.
“I’m not making nowhere near the money” being lost from the furlough, White said. “I’m very thankful” for FEEA, she added.
Lee-Watford is in similar straits. EEOC staffers lost one week of wages. She gets paid twice a month, and the checks don’t go far. Here’s what she told me in an e-mail:
“One check is rent and my other check goes towards my other bills and expenses. My expenses did not decrease because of furlough, if any thing they have increased. My rent went up $15 and by not paying my bills on time or in full, making only a partial payment, I have been charged late fees.
“I had to call the cable company and have them remove some services to bring down my bill. As a government employee, I have to pay for parking since my agency is not in a federal government building. I bring home a little over $1,000 every two weeks; my rent is $705 monthly. I have a car payment of $372 monthly. I pay for parking monthly $50, and I still walk six blocks to work. If I parked in the garage attached to my building I would pay over $100 a month. With those three bills (rent, car payment, parking) alone, I'm already at $1,127.
“Let’s not talk about the gas prices to fuel up my car so I can get to and from work. Then I have utilities, food, insurance and a summer camp for my daughter to attend while not in school. I have no money left over.
“I’m a single mother and it is very hard.”
This is the voice of a furloughed federal employee. For those like Lee-Watford, whose GS-5 grade is at the lower end of the federal pay scale, the unpaid days have taken a heavy toll.
“Folks have been scratching and clawing and now the furlough hits,” Bauer said. “It’s devastating the most vulnerable out there.”
Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at wapo.st/JoeDavidson.