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U.S. government workers seek loans, welfare as shutdown takes big bite from pay

Visitors walk at Ford's Theatre, which reopens today due to $25,000 in funding provided by its trustee Ronald Perelman, in Washington October 16, 2013.
Credit: Reuters/Yuri Gripas
Visitors walk at Ford's Theatre, which reopens today due to $25,000 in funding provided by its trustee Ronald Perelman, in Washington October 16, 2013. Credit: Reuters/Yuri Gripas

By Gabriel Debenedetti and Cezary Podkul

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - For government workers who have been out of work for nearly two weeks during the partial shutdown of the U.S. government, reduced paychecks have meant scrambling to talk to creditors and find ways to pay for basic expenses.

Last Friday was the first payday of the shutdown for hundreds of thousands federal workers, and the furloughed employees were not paid for nearly half of a two-week period after many government operations shut down as the new fiscal year began on October 1.

Among those furloughed was Sam Nevarez, a human resources trainer for the U.S. Forest Service in Albuquerque, New Mexico, who said he is very concerned about upcoming bills.

"It's been very hard because based on when we were furloughed and the pay period, it's about half my check, and that doesn't pay the bills," Nevarez told Reuters.

"I've been trying to work with my creditors and the mortgage company to try to see if I can push back payments without penalties, and that doesn't seem to be working."

Government workers' checks are likely to be miniscule on the next Friday payday, this week, even if the shutdown ends as expected with congressional votes on a deal late Wednesday.

What is now the third-longest government shutdown in U.S. history began after Republicans in the House of Representatives sought to tie government funding measures to a plan to delay or defund President Barack Obama's signature healthcare law.

Democrats refused to negotiate on "Obamacare," and the impasse expanded to include a debate about avoiding default by raising the country's looming debt ceiling.

U.S. Treasury data show $2.66 billion in federal salary payments for October 11, down from about $3 billion the Treasury usually pays out for federal salaries every other Friday.

Most civilian government agencies get paid on this biweekly schedule, which reflects the first five days of the shutdown. The General Services Administration, the Department of the Interior and parts of the Department of Defense issued payments on Friday.

As of Friday, the Treasury had paid out a total of $4.92 billion in federal salaries for its most recent fiscal year, which began October 1. As of the same Friday last year, the total stood at $6.78 billion, Treasury data show.

The Senate deal to end the shutdown includes a plan to restore missed pay to furloughed workers once the government reopens, but it's unclear when those payments would be made.

'NOTHING' IN NEXT CHECK

Nevarez, president of the local unit of the National Federation of Federal Employees union, said he was looking for loans to pay his mortgage and "to cover the cost of basically living."

Nevarez said he has worked for the federal government for seven years and never expected an extended furlough.

"The next check is going to be nothing, because there's no hours to put in," he explained.

"I'm at this time looking at loans, (and) I'm trying to get loans just to survive. It's completely unfair because we're public servants."

He added that he has heard of other federal workers who applied unsuccessfully for unemployment benefits.

Jessica Mahalingappa, a furloughed federal worker, said she applied for unemployment benefits in Maryland. Her husband's pay has not been jeopardized because he is not a federal employee.

But Mahalingappa said she has been cutting back on shopping, and cooking at home more. She also said her time off work was "frustrating" because if she had known she would be furloughed this long she might have gone to visit family out of town or started some household projects.

She said she is worried that the furloughs will demoralize federal employees. "Public-sector employees tend to be motivated by a sense of mission," she said.

Nevarez painted a starker picture.

"Tomorrow I'm going to go into the human services office to apply for food stamps because that's going to help me offset some costs," he said this week. "In all my life I've never had to ask for any kind of assistance."

"It's that or look for another job, basically."

(Reporting by Gabriel Debenedetti in Washington and Cezary Podkul in New York; Additional reporting by Tabassum Zakaria in Washington; Editing by David Lindsey and Cynthia Osterman)

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