Workplace

Government shutdown stings KC’s idle federal workforce — except those getting paid

Erica Atchley hopes this government shutdown doesn’t last as long as the one in 2013.

The Kansas City resident went four weeks between paychecks. Raising four children with her husband, the bills piled up.

“It took a year to recover from that one,” said the furloughed federal worker, who spoke on condition that The Star not identify the agency that employs her.

Dec. 31 was the last payday for Atchley, and Washington is showing no signs of resolving its debate soon.

She is cutting down on spending, of course, and would like to find a part-time job. A second job requires approval, but because of the shutdown there’s no one available to grant permission.

“We’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t,” Atchley said.

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Federal worker Erica Atchley says she has $85 on hand and no idea when she will get her next paycheck. Atchley, of Kansas City, is off work due to the government shutdown. Keith Myers kmyers@kcstar.com

Count Atchley among 9,000 or so federal workers in the Kansas City area going without pay, said Larry Hisle, executive director of the Federal Executive Board. He described the board as the chamber of commerce for federal offices in the area.

The government shutdown has separated local workers into three groups.

Furloughed workers were sent home without pay just before Christmas. Others have been kept on the job, working under exemptions or because their services are essential — but they’re not getting paid either.

Most, however, work at federal agencies that haven’t been shut down and they’re working and getting paid.

Idled operations include those at the Environmental Protection Agency, Internal Revenue Service, Housing and Urban Development, the Department of Agriculture, Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Department of Commerce and the National Archives, Hisle said.

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Citizens looking for help from the IRS Taxpayer Assistance Center at Kansas City’s Union Station found no one at work. Furloughed federal workers have begun to look for help, too. Mark Davis The Kansas City Star

The biggest of these is the IRS, Hisle said, where a surge in temporary hiring for the tax season has swelled ranks to as many as 6,000. A visit to the IRS Taxpayer Assistance Center in Union Station showed it is closed because of the shutdown.

An IRS spokesman for the region was not available because of the federal shutdown.

Most of the 38,000 federal employees in the area have avoided the shutdown because it did not affect their agencies. This includes employees at Fort Leavenworth, the Social Security Administration, Veterans Affairs and Department of Defense.

Nearly all federal employees in the Richard Bolling Federal Building downtown are working and being paid, including Hisle who is on the job at the Office of Personnel Management’s small office there.

Benjamin King, a Social Security employee in the building, also is working and getting paid, in part thanks to his work as a lobbyist for the American Federation of Government Employees Local 1336. The union successfully lobbied Congress last year to fund the agency’s operations through 2019, King said.

It also has sued the federal government over the shutdown.

Furloughs have become part of the job for federal workers in the Kansas City area. Although 2013 was the last extended shutdown, this one technically is the third to hit during 2018. The other two were resolved quickly.

Each one rattles budgets, raises stress levels and disrupts lives as workers wait for Washington to settle its battles and fund government.

“It sucks being a political pawn,” King, a union steward, said.

Several other area federal employees spoke with The Star but asked that their last names not be used, concerned about their job security.

Michael said he applied to become an Uber driver when he switched from his job in private industry to a federal agency here four years ago. And when this furlough hit, he began to drive to pull in some extra cash to make his rainy day fund last a bit longer.

His Uber income has ended because he got called back to work. He’s working but not getting paid while the shutdown lasts. It moves him that much closer to having to pull a loan out of his federal retirement account, which is much like a 401(k) account.

Furloughed federal worker David said he doesn’t have much of a financial cushion to fall back on. He “could probably get through another pay period,” but some tough decisions rest on how soon the shutdown ends.

There may not be money for his wife’s plan to start college, a decision they have to make this weekend. A degree would lead to higher earnings, but David’s not sure they can afford school if the shutdown is going to persist.

“The timing’s bad,” David said. “If it wasn’t the holidays it would be a little less stressful.”

Holiday credit card bills will be due soon, though some furloughed workers already plan to make minimum payments and suffer the interest costs that triggers.

Many say they’re calling their mortgage company, power company and other creditors with a heads up about their suspended jobs and a hope for some temporary forbearance.

Diane, another furloughed worker, made those calls in 2013 and found some relief. Her lenders were willing to wait a bit on her mortgage and another loan she had at the time.

But they were going to “revisit” their decision if the shutdown had lasted 30 days.

“I better get something by February 1,” Diane said of her federal pay.

An extended shutdown would threaten to spread the pain beyond federal workers’ personal lives to the rest of the local and national economies, said Jeff Pinkerton, an economist at the Mid-America Regional Council.

Tightened budgets of idle workers already is hitting shopkeepers, and Pinkerton pointed to a report on the damage the 2013 shutdown had on economic activity.

With some 800,000 federal workers on furlough, economists say each week the government remains shut down cuts into the nation’s economic growth. The damage would reverse itself once government reopens, they said.

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