Staff laid off amid US shutdown fret over making ends meet

US government employees sent home because of administration's shutdown will feel the pinch

PUBLISHED : Friday, 04 October, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 04 October, 2013, 9:51am

Lyn Kirshenbaum understands why US President Barack Obama and congressional Republicans keep exchanging swings over health care and federal spending. Politics is a brutal business.

What she does not understand is why she is the one who is black and blue.

Kirshenbaum, a 61-year-old policy specialist at the Department of Housing and Urban Development in Philadelphia, is among more than 800,000 workers on federal payrolls sent on leave since a government-wide shutdown began on Tuesday. Assuming it continues, her next pay cheque will include six days of earnings instead of the usual 10.

She and other federal workers say they feel like collateral damage in the continuing fiscal and ideological wars between the White House and its rivals.

Throngs of civil servants have been sent home without pay, forbidden even to check their government e-mail accounts. Other throngs have been ordered to work through the shutdown without pay.

"I can't afford to be without a pay cheque - ever," said Tamika Cole, 42, a claims processor who is working without pay at the regional Philadelphia offices of the Social Security Administration. "I have a child that I pay tuition for, who goes to a Catholic school. I've got a mortgage to pay every month. The fact that I'm coming to work every day and don't know if I am going to get paid - that's a lot of pressure."

Tuition alone, she said, costs the family US$725 a month.

Kirshenbaum, a single parent with two daughters who lives in a 390 sq ft terraced house in central Philadelphia, said take-home pay has been eaten away by forced leave, inflation and rising health care costs to the point that her home-equity line and her credit cards are all but maxed out.

Such tales would seem to belie one popular notion, that of a bloated, overpaid and underworked federal bureaucracy badly in need of a round of lay-offs. Academics and political research groups debate the accuracy of that stereotype.

Most government jobs do include generous benefits, and the rates at which workers leave, voluntarily or not, have traditionally been below those in the private sector.

But the executive-branch civilian workforce had been more or less stable for more than 15 years, and generally smaller than in the decade before that.

And while pay for senior civil servants can be generous, other salaries can be miserly. Wages can vary depending on the location, but in Philadelphia, a post that typically goes to someone with a high school diploma and no experience can pay as little as US$24,379 annually.