US workers facing debt from last shutdown fear deal may collapse

Gov’t employees, contractors still recovering from last closure worry what a new shutdown may mean for their livelihoods

Trump shutdown
Two government employees in Detroit, Michigan rally against the last government shutdown [File: Paul Sancya/AP Photo]

Washington, DC – Days away from another possible government shutdown in the United States, Maria can’t imagine facing another one.

The 43-year-old law clerk and mother of one spent the last month stressed, accumulating debt and in search of “any and every” job possible to help keep her family afloat during the 35-day partial government shutdown that US President Donald Trump triggered in late December over spending for his border wall.

Maria, who asked that her surname be withheld, is one of an estimated 4.1 million government contractors and grantees in the country. Unlike the 800,000 federal government employees who were furloughed or required to work without pay and received back pay for the shutdown period, many contractor employees did not.

“It was very difficult at the time because everyone was looking for a job,” she said to Al Jazeera. “I was looking for everything. Walking dog or anything. Really everything,” she added.

Maria lost $6,000 last month but considers herself “lucky” to have a husband who could support her. Unlike some contractors who told Al Jazeera they were laid off, Maria and her colleagues had a job to go back to after the shutdown ended. 

But during the closure, many had no savings to fall back on, and getting a loan also proved impossible, Maria said, adding that banks she approached were unwilling to approve loans to people who had no proof of income.

However, her bank agreed to scrap late payment fees for those affected by the shutdown as she continues to struggle to pay off debt that piled up over the 35-day shutdown period.

Filing for unemployment did not help either. By the time her claim was processed, Trump agreed to reopen the government for three weeks to allow congressional negotiators time to find a compromise on government funding. 


As the previous shutdown dragged on, Maria said, some became lonely and depressed.

“Coming to work for some people becomes part of their life,” she said. “If you are single and don’t see people every day, it hurts,” she added. “People lost that human connection. I was trying to get in touch with people to make sure they were ok.”

‘With this president, anything can happen’

Republican and Democratic negotiators hammered out a deal late on Monday, which reportedly includes some funding for “physical barriers”, but not the $5.7bn in funding for Trump’s border wall. 

On Tuesday, Trump said he wasn’t “happy” with the deal, but added that he didn’t think there would be another shutdown. 

Still, Maria is worried that the deal could still collapse.

“We are just waiting to see what will happen,” she said. “But with this president, anything can happen,” she added. “It can happen and he can do this over and over again.” 


Funding for a host of federal agencies is due to expire on Friday under the stopgap spending measure passed last month by Congress, meaning a deal needs to be signed by the president before the end of the week.

At work, Maria avoids the subject. Like many others who spoke to Al Jazeera the idea of another shutdown has become “too upsetting” to discuss.

Seth Harris, a visiting professor at the Cornell Institute for Public Affairs and former acting Secretary of Labor under former President Barack Obama, said the uncertainty over another shutdown could affect federal workers’ productivity.

“You don’t want employees to feel distracted or spend time thinking about leaving or retiring prematurely – and all those are possible after a shutdown,” he said.

“I think worries about more shutdowns are not unreasonable,” Harris added. “One would hope that the president would have learned his lesson from other shutdowns and the complete failure of this shutdown as a political maneuver, but I am not persuaded that he has learned that lesson.”

A real struggle

Nicole Bryner, a federal employee and mother of two, said she was also worried.

When she and her colleagues returned to work on January 28, she said discussing the effects of the shutdown was hard for many because it meant disclosing finances with colleagues. She said upon returning to work, people were relieved but also angry. 


“It’s hard to speak to people in that way, it’s a strange vulnerability,” she said to Al Jazeera. “There are people really struggling,” she added. “We still feel there is a huge cloud over our heads, it’s hard to talk about it.”

Although Bryner received back pay, she did not count on it. Even though federal employees received back pay during previous shutdowns, she said “what was once precedent, might not be any more” under the current political climate.

No one truly knows the impact of these shutdowns. It felt surreal that nobody else understood the urgency. It was super stressful for our family.

Nicole Bryner, federal employee

Following December’s shutdown, Bryner’s family had to stop putting money into certain savings accounts, including their children’s college fund. They also halted charitable giving and resorted to discretionary spending.

“It was surreal, it was like being in a twilight zone,” she said. “No one truly knows the impact of these shutdowns,” she added. “It felt surreal that nobody else understood the urgency. It was super stressful for our family.”

For now, Bryner continues her work with two contingency plans: one if the shutdown goes into effect and another if it does not.

But outside of work, she is yet to recover financially and emotionally from the last closure as she continues to struggle to get her family life back to how it was before.

Source: Al Jazeera

More from Economy
Most Read