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Unpaid US government workers struggle

04 October 2013, 11:34

Washington - The day after the US government ran out of money, Maria Njoku called her landlord to let him know she would be late with the rent.

Like hundreds of thousands of civil servants, she is worried about how she will make ends meet after being placed on indefinite unpaid leave as a result of this week's government shut-down.

"It's a huge financial burden," said the 27-year-old, who works at the Pentagon as an information assistant.

Her landlord told her late fees will be imposed if she fails to make the next rent payment by 11 October.

But a deeply divided Congress appears far away from any deal to fund government operations for the new fiscal year, leaving Njoku and other government workers in a financial bind.

Watching the news for any glimmer of hope, Njoku is counting on an end to the deadlock in the next few days.

This would allow her to receive a pay check and cover her $1 300 monthly rent for her apartment in Greenbelt, Maryland.

And if the shut-down drags on? "I have to find something for myself, either get a second job, find something on the weekends to pay bills - if it comes to that point. I'm hoping it doesn't."

Njoku said moving back in with either of her divorced parents is not a practical option, as both of them have been furloughed from their jobs at the Internal Revenue Service.

Even before the shut-down, morale was deteriorating among the Pentagon's civilian workers.


Budget cuts have forced more than half of them to take six days of unpaid leave earlier this year, with another round likely on the horizon.

"Right now, I'm just pretty much disgusted," Njoku said of Washington's politics.

In the meantime, she was in an anxious limbo, reluctant to go out to see friends with the prospect of no pay check. "It's hard to make plans. You don't want to spend money."

Some of the 800 000 government workers on furlough staged a protest Wednesday in front of the Smithsonian Natural History museum to vent their frustration.

They wore green T-shirts with the words, "I'd Rather Be Working for You," as tourists walked by the museum - which is closed under the shut down.

"I'm very worried about it," said Cheryl Claus, an employee at the Agriculture Department who took part in the demonstration.

"I have financial obligations that I need to meet and there's no end in sight to this shut down and we don't know when we'll be paid again," Claus said. "It's very frightening, it's very frightening."

She and other civil servants said they feel they are being singled out for punishment.

"We're very upset that Congress is not doing its job, not passing the budget, and is still getting paid and we're not. So we feel frankly quite victimized by it."

Some workers with no financial cushion had already had to go to friends, family or banks to borrow money.

Shut-down specials

As bars in Washington offered "shut-down specials," Erik Brine relied on black humour to get through the ordeal.

Brine holds three jobs with the government, as a civilian employee with the Air Force, a part-time role as a reservist for the defence secretary's office and as an aide to a US senator under a fellowship.

He spent the first day of the shut-down sorting out furlough paper work for all three of his jobs.

"It took me the better of the day to get canned three times," said Brine, a retired C-17 pilot who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Brine, 37, who has four children under the age of eight, had recently decided to take a civilian job at the Air Force instead of a better paid position with the reserves in the belief he would have more job security.

"I was willing to take the General Services job for the stability and that turns out to be quite the joke," he said.

Brine said the whole experience has led him to question his career choice, as budget cuts and crises undermine the appeal of a "safe" track in government service.

Although he and other employees have strict orders not to come to work, Brine will return to the Pentagon on Thursday for a ceremony marking his promotion to lieutenant colonel in the reserves.

But his brother will not be able to attend the event. He works for the FBI, and has orders to keep working - even without pay.



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