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Government workers see paychecks diminish

WASHINGTON – The paycheck federal workers have been dreading hit bank accounts Friday, representing salaries cut in half for most idled employees. The next payday will be all zeros, and with furloughs dragging on, civil servants are settling into a financial crouch, slashing expenses, canceling vacations, tapping retirement savings and taking second jobs.

“We have no income coming into the house right now, but the bills haven’t stopped,” said John Ferris of Falls Church, Va. He is in a two-furlough marriage; both he and his wife, Lena, are locked out of jobs at the Environmental Protection Agency. With both of their paychecks dwindling, the family of six has put a scalpel to the household budget.

They’ve cut out restaurants and expensive groceries. Gone are the motel stays at their kids travel softball tournaments; instead, they drive all night. But the most painful cut has been a furlough of their own, laying off their autistic son’s longtime reading specialist.

“He’s been with our family for years, and I love him to death, but I thought, ‘Wow, how am I going to pay him if we don’t have paychecks coming,’ ” Lena Ferris said. She worries that one of the shutdown’s lasting aftershocks could be her son’s having to adjust to a new tutor. “He needs money, too,” she said of the tutor. “I’m worried he’s going to start working for another family.”

Federal workers say they were hugely relieved by last week’s House vote to guarantee the missed pay after the furlough’s over. But that hasn’t eased their anxiety over the bills stacking up in the meantime. Some parents are stretching to pay for day care they don’t need just so they don’t lose their slots while waiting to go back to work. The furloughed are looking for money to satisfy their creditors or begging them for more time to pay their bills.

“A lot of our members have been asking to skip a payment,” said Pamela Hout, chief executive of the Census Federal Credit Union. Her staff has been working a few hours a week at the nearly deserted Census Bureau headquarters in Prince George’s County, Md., to meet the demand. “We’ve been accommodating them; all they have to do is show us their [furlough] letter.”

The Ferrises, who lived through the shutdowns of the mid-1990s as young EPA staffers, moved fast to get cash, taking out a loan from their federal retirement program to cover the mortgage for two months. If the standoff goes longer, they will consider a second note on their house to keep bill-paying money on hand.

“I’m the kind of guy who really would be up every night worried about how to pay the mortgage,” John Ferris said.

Caroline Fernandez spent part of the week applying for unemployment benefits as a way to generate carry-over income while she and her husband are furloughed. She works on homelessness-prevention programs for the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Her husband produces reading material for the blind at the Library of Congress. The couple, who live in Takoma Park, Md., never expected to find themselves struggling the way many of their clients do.

“Here we were serving these marginalized populations, and now we’ve been marginalized,” David Fernandez-Barrial said.

Social service agencies and health care providers in the area reported an uptick in federal workers asking for help or doing without as the shutdown vise tightened on family budgets.

The Ferrises, meanwhile, are using the furlough to update their resumes and brush off their LinkedIn networks. One of them, they’ve decided, had better get away from government work.

“We love public service,” Lena Ferris said. “We’re very committed to our jobs and the mission of our agency. But it’s just too unstable.”