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Thousands Of Workers Must Figure Out How They'll Pay Monthly Bills Without A Paycheck


Now that many federal workers are about to go without a paycheck, stress is growing. As NPR's Tovia Smith reports, there are also offers to help.

TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: Rita Silva Martins thought she'd finally made it. After years working as a janitor, she landed an airport security job with the TSA. And she and her husband bought their first house outside Boston, where they squeezed in with four kids.


RITA SILVA MARTINS: Do you want some mac and cheese?

SMITH: With her husband's job at a car dealership, Martins was managing to scrape by until the shutdown.

MARTINS: It's weighing heavy, where I'm having panic attacks not knowing what's going to happen.

SMITH: Martins is still working - overtime, actually. But if and when that pay comes, Martins worries it'd be too late for her next mortgage payment. And the little cushion she has will be spent.

MARTINS: It's just going to get worse. I have no jewelry. I have nothing to pawn - nothing to just cash in.

SMITH: Martins is looking for a second job. Her husband already took one, desperately trying to hold on to their house.

MARTINS: It's your dream. You know, I'm 34 years old. I don't know when I'm going to be able to buy something else. How can I save if I'm living paycheck to paycheck right now?


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Excuse me. He's coming through. Let him through.

SMITH: At Logan Airport, TSA security officer Tom Dasher can relate. Both he and his wife are working for the TSA without pay.

TOM DASHER: You can see it in everyone's faces. It is hard.

SMITH: To make ends meet, Dasher's using gift cards he got for Christmas. Then, it's savings. But even that won't last long with a 2-year-old in day care and a medical condition that means loads of doctor's bills.

DASHER: It will eventually get ugly. The math will break down.

SMITH: Their only option then, Dasher says, will be asking relatives for a loan.

DASHER: It is very tough to even think about asking for any kind of handout. But, you know, it comes down to sucking up your pride and taking care of your family.

LORI TRAHAN: I so appreciate you coming in and sharing how hard it is on you all personally.

SMITH: In Lowell this week, newly elected Massachusetts Congresswoman Lori Trahan met with EPA employees feeling the pinch. Even higher earners like Steve Calder are feeling it. It's not just cash flow issues, Calder says. He's borrowed against his retirement fund, and his loan payments come out of his paychecks. But if he's not getting paychecks...

STEVE CALDER: The loan becomes in default. It becomes income by IRS rules. And then there's also a 10 percent penalty associated with taking it out. So that's money that I would never see again.

TRAHAN: You know what? That...

SMITH: Trahan promises to help.

TRAHAN: Certainly, if there are things that we can do to be helpful to kind of ward off the collectors, we'd like to do that.

CALDER: Right.

TRAHAN: This is not your burden alone, and we want to be helpful.

SMITH: In Boston, for the Coast Guard, the only military branch unpaid through the shutdown, help comes in the form of a new pop-up food pantry. Hundreds helped themselves this week to groceries, medicine and more brought in by the Massachusetts Military Support Foundation. And President Don Cox says an existing pantry on Cape Cod handed out more in two days than it usually does in a month.

DON COX: We've been hit hard with the baby food, the diapers - that reminds me I'm out of diapers again. So, I mean, it's just - it's a tidal wave.

JENNY JAMES: Honestly, I was really blown away because it's actually very relieving.

SMITH: Jenny James, wife of a Coast Guardsman and mother of two, first came to the pantry a few days into the shutdown hoping to save her cash just in case. And she's been back several times.

JAMES: It's very comforting. A little bit of the weight's lifted off of me having to worry about putting the food on the table, especially when you don't really know what the future holds.

SMITH: It's certainly more comforting than the advice recently posted on a Coast Guard employee assistance website. That suggested families try creative ways to make cash, like holding garage sales. Yesterday the Coast Guard pulled that offline, saying it, quote, "doesn't reflect current efforts to support its workforce." Tovia Smith, NPR News.