East Tennessee Federal Workers Feel Shutdown Pinch, Wary of Repeat
Stacy Clark has a doctorate in forestry. But for the last month she’s been cleaning houses, pulling weeds, and selling firewood. The odd jobs helped her cobble together some income while she was furloughed from her job with the U.S. Forest Service.
“I feel pretty demoralized, because I feel like we are valuable people and valuable workers and what we do is important,” said Clark, who says she chose her job partly because she enjoys working for the public good. “I feel like we’re being told, ‘You’re not important.’ And that really upsets me. I want to get back to work. It’s a huge part of my identity.”
As the primary breadwinner in her family, she’s glad to back on the job this week after the longest government shutdown in American history. But federal workers like Clark
don’t know when they’ll receive back pay or whether their financial stress will resume on February 15. That’s when the temporary deal forged by President Trump and Congress will end unless they reach a budget compromise.
Employees of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, National Park Service and Transportation Safety Administration were among East Tennesseans who stopped getting paid when the federal government shut down December 22. The many local government employees working for the Tennessee Valley Authority and Oak Ridge National Laboratory were not affected, because TVA receives no money from the federal budget, and the U.S. Department of Energy budget had been approved last fall.
As a USDA employee, Clark was among the “non-essential employees” told to stay home. “This is not a vacation for me,” she said. “It’s very stressful. It has caused us a lot of anxiety.”
Money was already tight. Clark and her husband, who is a singer-songwriter, were completing some home renovations. One of their rescue dogs had three surgeries before the furlough and needed another. Her husband organized a concert on their property last week to raise money to pay veterinary bills.
Other federal workers, like airport screeners, were deemed “essential” and required to report to work without pay. Scott Thomas is a single dad who works for TSA at McGhee Tyson Airport.
“It’s been difficult,” he said. “I have a child to take care of so it’s kind of stressful figuring out how I’m going to pay for food and how I’m going to get to and from work.”
Thomas was already stretching money to pay off the Christmas gifts he had bought for his son. Some of his co-workers have more children to support, or are married to someone with the same job.
He and Clark have weathered past shutdowns -- including one earlier in 2018 that lasted just a couple of days -- and neither expected this one to last more than a few weeks.
“Most of us live paycheck to paycheck,” said Thomas, who has worked for TSA for 17 years. “I mean, despite popular belief, government employees like us, we don’t make as much as people think.”
There are limits on the kind of help unpaid government workers are allowed to accept. They can’t take cash gifts, for example. But they can receive food. FISH, a partnership among churches providing groceries to needy Knoxville residents. Director Jim Wright said FISH’s incoming requests for help went up 30 percent during the shutdown.
The food comes from Second Harvest Food Bank. Second Harvest also delivered 92 food boxes to TSA workers, including Thomas. The agency has received several donations for workers hurt by the shutdown, said executive director Elaine Streno. For example, employees still on the job at Knoxville’s Social Security Office collected $750 and 443 pounds of food for their furloughed co-workers.
Restaurants have also contributed. Thomas said Calhoun’s, Chick-fil-A and others provided free lunches to airport employees at work, he said. Others, including Yassin’s Falafel House, Open Chord and K-Town Tavern, have offered free or discounted meals to unpaid federal employees and their families.
Other charities have been preparing for increased demand, too. Last week Blount County churches started a campaign called “#lovenevershutsdown.” They are requesting donations to the non-profit Good Neighbors, which helps Blount County residents pay rent or utility bills.
“These are people who have probably never been in this spot before,” said Lisa Blackwood, executive director of Good Neighbors. “They’ve been able to pay their bills and have not had to worry about it. We can also give them referrals and resources to other agencies in the community, without them having to figure out how to navigate this crazy system.”
Thomas and Clark both asked family members for loans to help tide them over, but also met with understanding from some of their creditors. Thomas says he’s lucky that his landlord and the Maryville Utilities Board have been flexible. Clark says her mortgage company has agreed to shift back her payment schedule.
Some local credit unions have offered similar help to members affected by the shutdown. Alcoa Tennessee Federal Credit Union let them pay only the interest on an existing loan, said Amber Sullivan, vice president of member services. ORNL and Enrichment federal credit unions offered short-term loans at no interest, and ORNL wasn’t requiring any payments for three months. Enrichment has been allowing skipped loan payments, and no fees for late payments or returned checks.
“It was just important for us to be able to tell our members and put out there to our members that are affected by this that we’re here for you,” said John Merritt, chief information officer for Enrichment Federal Credit Union. “You run into a problem, come see us and let’s talk about it.”
Thomas said many local people and organizations have tried to help.
“We were never expecting anything like this to happen, but as soon as it happened, everybody was wanting to give us things,” he said -- including money, which TSA employees can’t accept.
“We ended up with a lot of support, and even people just coming through the airport were saying, ‘Sorry you have to be here, but we appreciate it.’ So that was kind of a warm feeling,” he said.
This sympathy for federal workers contributed to turning public opinion against the shutdown. Many legislators on both sides of the aisle are reluctant to resort to the tactic again. But with President Trump and Congressional Democrats at an impasse over border wall funding, it’s still unclear whether Thomas and other federal workers will be back in the same situation a few weeks from now.