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Free mac and cheese, clean closets, empty bank accounts are part of life during U.S. government shutdown

Free mac and cheese, clean closets, empty bank accounts are part of life during U.S. government shutdown
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WASHINGTON—The pantry was looking awfully empty, but now there will be mac and cheese, followed by more mac and cheese, and then maybe on the next day, how about maybe just a little mac and cheese? Because it’s free, the latest giveaway for federal workers who are not being paid for their work, and because, in Shawanda Hardy’s house, there’s a son who’s in middle school and getting taller every hour or so, and the rent went up $50 last month, and even if the government says you should ask your landlord to let things slide for a while, that’s not really how life works, is it?

“God is going to see us through,” said Hardy, a single mother In Prince George’s County, Maryland, who works as an assistant to the head of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Except she’s not working now, as the politicians in Washington, D.C., chose to stop paying 800,000 federal workers because they couldn’t agree on whether to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexican border.

Customers wait in line outside a restaurant opened by chef Jose Andres for federal workers and their families during a partial government shutdown in Washington, D.C., on Thursday. Politicians in Washington, D.C. chose to stop paying 800,000 federal workers because they couldn’t agree on whether to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexican border.  (Andrew Harrer / Bloomberg)

That logic is mostly lost on the millions of Americans in families where a government job used to mean security. But on this day, 26 days into the shutdown, there didn’t seem to be much of a premium on logic.

Achingly long queues at airport security meant some Transportation Security Administration employees had had it with working without pay and were not showing up. Headhunters said government workers were calling, more each day, asking about jobs in the private economy. A NASA scientist spent his day selling real estate. A State Department lawyer flew to Santa Fe, New Mexico, for a few days of warmth and spa treatments after running out of household projects to complete — and then, just as she was landing in New Mexico, her bosses summoned all employees back to work next week, because someone had found extra money to pay them.

Federal courts, running out of money, brace for shutdown’s pain

Thursday, like every day, brought moments that played tricks on the minds of federal workers, yet did nothing to put them back on the payroll. President Donald Trump barred House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., from using military aircraft to visit troops in Afghanistan, because “it would be better if you were in Washington negotiating with me.” The U.S. Labor Department rejected the D.C. mayor’s request to make more federal workers eligible for unemployment benefits.

So the shutdown continued. It looked like this: Long, lazy lunches with fellow furloughed folks from the office. Anxious rewrites of the old resumé. That impossible clutter in the basement, finally attacked because if not now, when?

Politically, the shutdown is a beached whale, stuck in place, with no apparent way back to the water. Even though a large majority of Americans oppose using public employees as a bargaining chip, and even though most voters blame Trump for the shutdown, neither side in Washington has much incentive to compromise. Both sides’ bases have hardened in their positions for and against the wall.

For most Americans, life has proceeded apace. Only 18 per cent said the shutdown has inconvenienced them at all. They worked and they got paid, which would hardly be worth pointing out except that almost 1 per cent of U.S. workers haven’t seen a dime in the past month.

But look closer on this one day in the life of the shutdown and things do appear a bit off kilter:

On the Mall in Washington, D.C., you had your choice of parking spaces, which generally happens only on Christmas. Tourists wandered aimlessly, wondering what to do because federally funded museums were shuttered.

Johannes Schmidt, 23, a dental technician from Germany, zipped to and fro on an electric scooter — “We don’t have these yet back home,” he said — taking pictures of closed buildings. Instead of viewing masterworks inside the National Gallery of Art, he settled for standing beneath its majestic steps, reading a National Park Service plaque that spelled out “James Garfield’s Legacy.”

Across town, there were hardly any parking spots within blocks of a pop-up shop that Kraft Foods opened in an industrial space in northeast Washington, offering anyone with a government ID a brown paper grocery bag full of the company’s products, most of them bright orange. No charge, just a request that the workers “pay it forward to your favourite charity” once their paychecks resume.

Nearly 200 workers — most of them, like Hardy, loading up on mac and cheese — arrived in the first two hours. One of the people helping them collect food was Taylor McBride, herself a furloughed fed, picking up a few hours of work at the Kraft shop because the bills must be paid and, well, she was going a little stir-crazy sitting at home in Alexandria, Virginia.

“That first week, I barely did anything,” said McBride, 31, a media archivist at the Smithsonian Institution. She was too bummed by the idea that “the president just doesn’t care about his own government’s workers,” the sense that many Americans don’t respect the work federal employees do for them.

The shutdown for many has meant endless calls to the mortgage broker, the bank, the electric company, the impenetrable maze that cellphone companies have erected to keep you from speaking to a human. Can I skip a month? Will you slap on late fees?

Tajuana Norris’ mortgage company is, she said, “not sympathetic.” A federal worker for 28 years whose agency has required her to work without pay, she was at the mac and cheese place, too, stocking up because the bank account is bare.

At the office, before using lunch break to get the groceries, Norris and colleagues held what’s become a daily ritual, “a meeting to make sure people’s spirits are up.”

Norris’ spirits are in decent shape. She looks over at Capitol Hill and the White House and sees not evil people, but people who simply cannot understand, the kind of people who are elected to pass a budget but instead debate retweeting rapper Cardi B’s foul-mouthed rant against the shutdown.

“Trying to decide whether or not to retweet the Cardi B video,” tweeted Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii.

“Omg, I had the same argument with myself 30 minutes ago!” replied Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn.

“Guys, I’m holding my breath. Are you gonna RT Cardi B or not?” asked Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N. Y.

Norris sighed. “Those wealthy people have never had to struggle, never been poor, and they don’t have empathy,” she said, “so I can’t be mad at them. I do need them to get it together, but I can’t be mad, because I love my job, I love what I do for my country, and I love the people I work with.”

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In Kansas City, Missouri, where Mariam Hicks works at the Internal Revenue Service making sure the people who process tax returns are doing it right, the shutdown has meant a change of wardrobe as well as a gaping hole in her bank account.

Hicks, 36, usually wears a blouse and slacks to work. But this morning, she slipped into a new uniform: a black T-shirt with “Chiefs” written in sequins.

“Welcome to Rally House!” she shouted as a customer entered her temporary workplace, a downtown sports apparel store. Here, she’s surrounded by football jerseys, novelty socks and bottles of hot sauce — not quite what she keeps in her cubicle at the IRS, where she has spent the past nine years.

On Dec. 22, Hicks was promoted to manager. Her salary swelled from $56,000 to $62,000. “About time,” she thought.

Then the government shut down. She never got to move into her new office.

Now she’s hawking sports gear for $9 an hour.

“It’s still more than I’d get from collecting unemployment,” she said, folding a red pullover.
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