Analysis Law and Policy

Government Shutdown Puts Hundreds of Thousands of Middle-Class, Low-Wage Workers at Risk

Sheila Bapat

As part of the government shutdown, some 800,000 government workers are furloughed and another million are working without pay. Many of these workers identify as middle-class but risk falling into hard times because of this loss of income; others are already struggling, earning a meager $8.25 to $9.00 per hour.

Click here for all our coverage of the government shutdown.

Their ire over health-care reform has led House Republicans to a new low. As they refuse to pass a federal budget without the Senate agreeing to major changes to the Affordable Care Act (ACA), House Republicans are putting the economic security of hundreds of thousands of workers on the line by forcing a shutdown of the federal government.

As part of the shutdown, which began at 12:01 a.m. EST Tuesday, some 800,000 government workers are furloughed and another million are working without pay. Many of these workers identify as middle-class but risk falling into hard times because of this loss of income; others are already struggling, earning a meager $8.25 to $9.00 per hour.

One of the 800,000 non-essential federal employees who will be furloughed without pay because of the shutdown spoke with Rewire. The worker, who preferred not to reveal his real name, is an attorney in his early 30s who earns $70,000 a year and owes over $100,000 in law school loans. He and his wife identify as middle-class, though their steep student loans cause them to live paycheck-to-paycheck.

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“Since Congress failed to pass an appropriation, we have to go into work on Tuesday for just four hours to do ‘shutdown operations,’” he told Rewire. “After that, we go home indefinitely. Some management is staying, but we go home and turn off our phones, watch the news, and wait for this to be resolved.”

Once the shutdown ends, there is no guarantee he will receive back pay for the days he doesn’t work. One of his biggest concerns is his student loan payments. “I don’t know whether I’m going to try to defer my student loans while the shutdown is going on or not. It’s difficult to defer temporarily,” he said.

The attorney’s wife, who also spoke to Rewire on the condition of anonymity, works at a D.C.-based nonprofit and owes $30,000 in student loans. “We are lucky enough that we both make a decent living, but Washington, D.C., is extremely expensive,” she said. “We pay very high rent for a one-bedroom apartment. We have to sit down and figure out how long we can survive, if we can make rent this month, and chances are strong that we cannot.”

She said that if worst came to worst, the couple could try to borrow money from friends. “But I know many are much, much worse off,” she said.

“A lot of my colleagues are just disgusted and dismayed,” said her husband. “This is hard on me, and I make a reasonable salary. I know there are many who don’t make much at all who can’t afford to not be paid for even a couple of days.”

Though the short term will be a struggle for this couple, over the long term they are in a better position to rebound than many. The majority of federal government workers earn $35,000 to $40,000 per year, as Ned Resnikoff points out at MSNBC.com. J. David Cox, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, told Resnikoff, “[The salary range] is not over-bloated, that is not overpaid and ridiculous, that is people who are struggling to buy food and keep a roof over their head.”

These workers are cooks, wait staff, and concession workers who earn low salaries and have little chance of economic mobility or stability. Some low-wage federal workers were speaking out about their wages before the shutdown; indefinitely losing their wages will only exacerbate their struggles.

“Unexpectedly losing income is going to be difficult for workers across the board,” Kate Gallagher Robbins, senior policy analyst at the National Women’s Law Center, told Rewire. “Minimum-wage workers are in the most difficult situation in terms of having a cushion that will protect them from this kind of income shock. There are also a lot of young people in D.C. who are just out of college, just getting a master’s degree, who are middle-class, but their incomes may not be that large relative to their expenses. Losing salary for an indefinite period is a frightening position for anyone to be in.”

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