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Government shutdown: Working without pay

January 19, 2019 GMT

It’s been nearly four weeks since the federal government went into a partial shutdown, the effects of which are being felt in communities throughout the nation — and West Michigan is no exception.

The shutdown stems from a dispute between U.S. House of Representatives and President Donald Trump about how to fund a border wall between the United States and Mexico, and though the issue is a national one, the impact is being felt at the local level.

In the weeks since the shutdown started, at midnight on Dec. 22, 2018, federal government employees have been on furlough or experiencing gaps in employment. Employees deemed essential by the U.S. government continue to go to work each day without pay, while others are on leaves of absence.

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The shutdown is the longest in U.S. history and has caused roughly 420,000 federal employees to work without pay. Another 380,000 are working without pay, according to the Associated Press. The number of furloughed federal employees seeking unemployment benefits jumped in the first two weeks of the shutdown, topping 10,000 during the week of Jan. 5.

The Labor Department said Thursday that is double the number of federal workers who sought aid in the previous week, and noted that fewer than 1,000 former federal employees apply for jobless benefits each week ordinarily.

Employees have been assured that they will receive backpay when the partial shutdown ends, but for the time being, many government employees are having to rely on savings, emergency funds and community incentives to help them get through this trying period.

One such employee is Rebecca Berringer’s husband, who works for the United States Forest Service and, is an essential employee. He continues to go to work each day despite receiving no compensation.

Berringer said her husband was told not to speak to the press about the shutdown in an email from his supervisors at the National Forest Service — and additionally asked that his name not be printed — but said as a spouse she was able to discuss the impact the shutdown has had on the family.

“The impact is significant, obviously, because there are people working without pay,” she said.

The family has worked for the federal government for more than 20 years and have experienced several shutdowns. Because the current one is the longest in U.S. history, Berringer said there are consequences to the lapse in pay that might not be obvious to everyone.

“The essential workers — like my husband — are going to be paid. ... But if they open up tomorrow, then we’ll receive a month’s pay,” she said. “We’ll pay more on our taxes and a higher interest on our loans.”

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The Berringers consider themselves fortunate, however, because they’ve had time to prepare. They’ve learned through experience that shutdowns are an unfortunate but inevitable risk for government employees. Because they’ve been through it before, it’s something they’ve learned to prepare for and treat as a fact of life.

“Our first government shutdown in ’95-’96 … and that was under Bill Clinton,” Berringer said. “We were young at that time, and I remember being pretty outraged by it. We worked at Yellowstone National Park at that time.

“We knew another park employee approaching retirement-age who gave advice, and that was that as a federal employee, this is one of the risks.”

She said the shutdown will take a greater toll on younger government employees and their families, and encouraged people in that situation not to lose hope.

“You really have to tighten the belt, keep things as essential as possible,” she said. “You can get through this and weather the storm.”

Berringer urged those considering government employment to think through the decision and the benefits and risks associated with it before committing.

“You need to prepare for it, and make sure that you have a security fund,” she said.

Berringer said the government is making an effort to help employees affected by the shutdown, and she’s grateful for that.

“The government sent out letters to debtors to let people know that federal employees are not defaulting,” she said. “Of course, the debtors don’t have to read those letters, but it’s good that the government is trying to make it as easy on employees as possible.”

Chris Riley is a furloughed federal employee working at the Manistee-Huron National Forest.

He’s been working in parks services for 25 years and, like the Berringers, he’s become accustomed to the occasional furlough period, and said the pay lapse hasn’t affected him as much as it might affect newer federal employees.

However, he said the shutdown is unlike any he’s previously experienced. Not just because it’s the longest, but because there’s been no clear indication that an end is in sight.

“It’s a sense of the unknown. It’s never really gone on this long,” Riley said. “We just don’t know when this is going to end, so it’s different this time.”

Read the full story in Friday’s Ludington Daily News print or e-Editions.