The news is welcomed by the 800,000 government workers whose paychecks were on hold during the last shutdown – which lasted 35 days and was the longest in US history. Despite a law guaranteeing back pay for furloughed federal employees (federal contractors received no such guarantee), hundreds of workers reportedly were yet to receive back pay or had only gotten partial payment weeks after the shutdown ended – so going without pay again would have been a challenge.
Yet, while these employees don’t have to work without pay today, they’re not necessarily out of the woods financially.
A study recently found that found 78% of American workers say they are living paycheck to paycheck. More specifically, a Federal Reserve study asked Americans how they would cover a $400 emergency expense if needed. While the majority of respondents felt they could put it on a credit card, borrow from a bank or friend, or sell something to cover the expense – 29% of respondence would not be able to pay for even this small emergency expense.
Perhaps this is why twice as many TSA agents called in sick during the government shutdown. With agents saying they couldn’t afford to fill their car with the gas needed to drive to work, a variety of individuals and agencies banded together to offer free food, rides, and interest-free loans to the affected workers.
TSA agents weren’t the only workers put in that tenuous situation. Thousands of FBI agents, DEA agents and prison correctional officers also went without pay during the shutdown – as did park service, department of transportation, IRS workers, and more.
As the President of the Board of a nonprofit organization that works with individuals experiencing homelessness in Chicago, I know that today’s news is good – but that if these workers are still working paycheck to paycheck, they’re not free of the risk of needing our services.
When families and individuals are living without a solid financial cushion (most experts recommend having 3-6 months of emergency funds set aside) they’re carefully balancing bills for rent or housing, bills for food, and bills for medical care. A missed paycheck, a surprise housing repair or illness forces them to divert funds to deal with the emergency – but then shortchange one of the others.
Depending on the choice made, a dangerous spiral can begin. Missed rent can result in eviction, which means not having an address to put on job applications, which prevents future employment. Missed medication leads to too many sick days, which leads to losing employment, which leads to inability to pay rent. These aren’t the kinds of stories most people typically think of when we talk about “the homeless population” but they’re actually the kinds of folks that I see every day.
And so while I’m thrilled that we avoided a government shutdown today, I worry that many of our government workers are still at risk of becoming homeless for more mundane reasons that don’t necessarily make the news.
That’s why I’m joining Care For Friends in their Sleepout for Homelessness next Friday. For one night, dozens of Chicagoans will be sleeping outdoors to raise awareness and funds to support Chicago’s most vulnerable. We’d love your support – visit www.CFFSleeps.org to learn more.
About: JD Miller is a senior technology executive with a career spanning small startups and large public companies. He uses this expertise to help organizations increase and sustain financial performance. He is also active in Chicago’s philanthropic community, with a special interest in issues related to hunger and homelessness.
You can follow Dr. Miller on Twitter @JDM_Chicago