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Uncertainty, missed pay: These are the faces of the U.S. government shutdown

With the political process in Washington paralyzed, federal workers across the U.S. are now left wondering when they’ll get paid again and how they’ll make ends meet in the meantime.

Hundreds gather at free community dinner in D.C. suburbs amid financial squeeze

A community dinner is seen in Silver Spring, Md. Dubbed a 'Shutdown Social,' the dinner was organized so federal workers and their families could eat for free. (Jean-Francois Benoit/CBC)

The ongoing government shutdown in the United States is now the longest in the country's history. Federal workers whose offices are shuttered have now missed their first round of paycheques since the shutdown began on Dec. 22.

Nearly a million people are affected — employees of government agencies ranging from the Food and Drug Administration to the National Weather Service.

Their return to work depends on a seemingly impossible compromise on border security.

President Donald Trump wants $5.7 billion US in funding for a border wall with Mexico in any bill to reopen the government, despite his campaign promise that Mexico would pay. The Democrats say they support increased border security measures — but they won't fund the wall.

The paralyzed political process has left federal workers mired in uncertainty, wondering when they'll get paid again. Here are some of their stories.

'Just meeting the rent is difficult'

David McGivern, his partner and their toddler Archie recently moved to the Washington, D.C,, area from North Carolina. McGivern now works as an investigator at the Food and Drug Administration.  

"It's tough because you end up with these obligations to pay and just meeting the rent is difficult," he said.

McGivern hasn't yet been able to sell the family's property in North Carolina, adding to their financial uncertainty. He says they have enough savings for now, but his anxiety is growing as the shutdown grinds on.

"The biggest thing is the worry and not knowing how long it will last," he says.  

David McGivern, an investigator at the Food and Drug Administration, says he and his family have enough savings for now but his anxiety is growing as the shutdown grinds on. (Jean-Francois Benoit/CBC)

'I'm just crossing my fingers it will end soon'

Mauricia Barnett, a social scientist, began her job at the National Science Foundation nearly two years ago. It's the first time she's experienced a missed paycheque because of a government shutdown.

It's forcing her to reconsider her daily choices.

"I don't know what I'm going to do," she says. "I have to sacrifice a lot of things and be very mindful of what I do. Doing things for fun? I don't even see that as an option anymore because I have to prioritize."

Like McGivern, Barnett spent Friday night at a community dinner in Silver Spring, Maryland, a Washington suburb. Dubbed a "Shutdown Social," the dinner was organized so federal workers and their families could eat for free — saving them some money on the first day of missed paycheques.

"I'm just crossing my fingers it will end soon, but that probably won't happen," Barnett says. "I think it's probably going to last at least until the end of month."

Mauricia Barnett, who works at the National Science Foundation, says this is the first time she's experienced a missed paycheque because of a government shutdown. (Jean-Francois Benoit/CBC)

'I just think we have a xenophobic president'

National Weather Service employee Troy Medley says the shutdown is causing deep anxiety for him and his family.

"We worry about the future and not being able to pay the bills," he says. "It's worrisome for many people."

Still, even as he wonders how he'll make ends meet if the shutdown continues much longer, he supports the Democrats not bending to President Trump's demands for wall funding.

"I'm glad the Democrats aren't backing down," he says. "It's the principle. I just think we have a xenophobic president who doesn't like immigrants."

President Trump and his supporters deny that claim; they say a wall is necessary for national security.

"I hope the Democrats don't give in," Medley reiterates.

National Weather Service employee Troy Medley supports the Democrats not bending to President Trump’s demands for wall funding. (Jean-Francois Benoit/CBC)

'It doesn't make any sense'

Karen Hatwell, a chemist at the Food and Drug Administration, says she's grateful she has enough savings to get by even with a few lost paycheques.

But she's concerned about the impact of important federal agencies, like the FDA, responsible for protecting public health, not running at full capacity.

"I don't understand a system where in coming up with a federal budget, employees are used as pawns," she says. "It doesn't make any sense. I just don't understand why we're in the middle of it."

But even as the political impasse seems impossible to break, Hatwell has hope the shutdown will end soon.

"I have to believe that," she says. "Otherwise it's hard to get up every morning."

FDA chemist Karen Hatwell is concerned about the impact of important federal agencies responsible for protecting public health not running at full capacity. (Jean-Francois Benoit/CBC)

About the Author

Ellen Mauro

Ellen Mauro is a multi-platform reporter covering U.S. politics from the CBC News Washington bureau. She was previously based in London and has reported from the front lines of some of the top international news stories in recent memory.

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