Many Families May Need Months to Recover From the Shutdown

Stop the Shutdown Protesters at the Hart Senate Office Building Jan. 23.

Stop the Shutdown Protesters at the Hart Senate Office Building Jan. 23. Phil Pasquini/

As federal employees and contractors return to work, they’re still processing some of the emotional and financial stress of the past six weeks.

Ever since the government shutdown ended last Friday, Yvette Hicks said her cable company, her electric company, the bank that processes her auto-loan payments, and her life-insurance company have been calling her “back to back to back.” They want to know when they’ll be paid.

Hicks, a 40-year-old security guard working as a contractor for the federal government, had been wondering the same thing about her own income, having gone without work or pay during the 35-day shutdown.

During that time, she had to dip into her savings so that the electric company didn’t cut off power to her home in Washington, D.C., and she was forced to ration her children’s asthma medication—they needed it every four hours, but Hicks couldn’t afford to keep up that frequency. With bills piling up over the past month, she estimates that even now that she’s back to work, it’ll take until “the end of March, maybe” for her to get her finances back to where they were before the shutdown.

Hicks is one of the millions of Americans whose livelihoods were upended by the longest government shutdown in U.S. history. Just because that shutdown is over doesn’t mean that it isn’t still shaping the lives of American families, including contractors like Hicks who didn’t work and likely won’t receive back pay, and the roughly 800,000 federal workers who will. The individual stresses—both financial and emotional—may have eased, but they persist even as people return to their working rhythms.

The timing for a shutdown is never good, but it was especially bad for Bebe Casey, a 52-year-old businesswoman in New Hampshire. In late December, her mother was in the hospital at the end of her life, and Casey’s husband, a Customs and Border Protection employee, was ordered to continue working, with the expectation of later receiving back pay. The combination of a parent in the hospital and financial uncertainty was taxing. “This has just been a really hard last six weeks,” she told me.

Things turned out all right financially for Casey’s family, thanks in part to the end-of-year bonus she received. “If I hadn’t had that, then we would’ve been late on lots of stuff,” she says. “We were lucky.” Still, she’s a little nervous about upcoming financial obligations, such as making a college-tuition payment for her daughter next week. “We’re gingerly going through day by day right now, still trying to stuff as much money as we can away in case this happens again,” she says.

On the other side of the country, Mel May was experiencing similar uncertainty during the shutdown. May, a 55-year-old employee of the Federal Aviation Administration living in Albuquerque, was also expected to come into work without pay. “It was very stressful,” he said of making sure his bills were paid. He had trouble getting a loan to cover his rent and other bills, and ended up having to borrow money from his girlfriend.

In the end, May didn’t fall behind on any payments. “Everybody worked with me—even Comcast, of all people,” he said. Still, things were tight. He got cleared for unemployment assistance, started looking into getting a new job, and ate frugally—“lots of eggs, lots of oatmeal,” he told me. He’s glad he’ll start getting paychecks again soon.

The people I spoke to for this story told me of the stress they’d experienced during the shutdown and were well aware that they could experience it again soon, if a new agreement to fund the government is not reached by February 15. Yvette Hicks was worried that if she was out of work again, it’d take her even longer to get back on track financially.

Some aftereffects of the shutdown have been subtler, though. One 23-year-old federal contractor—he asked not to be named, for fear of repercussions at work—told me that this early exposure to the potential precarity of government work was discouraging. “For all of the merits of working for the government, it has shown me some of the disadvantages of working on something that’s at the mercy of politics,” he said. The shutdown may have lasted 35 days, but some of its effects will extend well beyond that.

Amal Ahmed contributed reporting to this article.