The federal government shutdown entered its record-tying 21st day Friday, and for Alex Jay and Vicki Berman, it might have been the most stressful one.
Friday was supposed to be payday, but the Bermans are among 800,000 federal workers who didn’t get checks due to the partial shutdown that began Dec. 22. Bills — credit card, car payment, car insurance — will come due in just a few days for the Bermans, who both work for the IRS office near 30th Street Station and live in Northeast Philadelphia
So Alex Berman, 47, is dipping into a “Don’t Touch” account so he can pay the minimum amount due on the bills. He’ll deal with the interest fees later. Vicki Berman said she planned to open an unemployment claim even though at any moment there’s a chance she might get called in as an essential employee. Depending on how long this continues, the couple might also need to ask family for help.
“We’re trying to hold it the best we can for our son,” said Vicki Berman, 48. He’s 7.
The Philadelphia region is home to more than 45,000 federal workers plus more federal contractors, though not all of them have been affected by the shutdown. The exceptions include whose who work for the Veterans Administration in East Falls and Defense Department contractors.
But thousands of Philly workers employed at agencies like the Department of Homeland Security, the Federal Aviation Administration, and the Department of Housing and Urban Development are anxious about how much longer they’ll have to sit at home as work piles up or how much longer they’ll be forced to work without pay.
Many, like the Bermans, are part of households with two federal workers, while others, like IRS tax-law specialist Cheryl Brewer, have grown children who also work for the government.
Brewer, who lives in Olney with her three daughters and granddaughter, said one daughter works for an insurance broker that caters to federal workers. She gets paid by commission and hasn’t been able to close any deals during the shutdown. Brewer’s eldest daughter works for the TSA, and though she was able to negotiate a discount in her weekly day-care fee for her 6-year-old, Brewer said, "I can see the amount of stress that’s on her.”
“Do you really think I’m gonna work airplanes a year from now and not get paid? I have to feed my children.”
Federal workers owe $438 million in monthly mortgage and rent payments, according to the Zillow real estate website. Meanwhile, utilities, banks, and phone and internet providers are waiving fees and offering payment plans for federal workers, and local theaters and museums are offering free admission for those affected by the shutdown.
Furloughed workers can apply for unemployment, but if they get back pay, they’ll have to pay back the unemployment.
Chris Perks, who leads the union of air traffic controllers at Philadelphia International Airport, said his members — 80 of whom have been working without pay — are asking whether they can get part-time jobs. These are people who are already working overtime to make sure planes land safely. Credit scores can affect security clearances that are necessary to qualify for the job, he added.
While his people will continue to do their jobs and keep travelers safe, he said that as the shutdown wears on, productivity is inevitably going to take a hit. Air traffic controllers won’t be able to land as many planes as they normally do.
“We can only go so long without capacity being decreased,” he said.
He was shocked to hear his supervisor say the shutdown might last months.
“Do you really think I’m gonna work airplanes a year from now and not get paid?” he said. “I have to feed my children.”
Perks, 42, is a Northeast Philly native and Air Force veteran who lives in Warminster. Perks’ wife stays at home with the couple’s 5-year-old and 3-year-old, so the family has only one income.
Inside the Philadelphia airport, TSA agents, who are also working without pay, are struggling, said TSA local union president Joe Shuker, who had just gotten off the phone with Philabundance in hopes of securing food for his members. He was inspired by the TSA union president in Tennessee, who worked with a food bank to get donations for TSA workers.
Ride-sharing service Lyft is offering a $300 signing bonus for TSA officers who want to drive, as well as a “concierge service” to help them get signed up quickly.
Informed of this offer, Shuker said, “I was hoping it was rides to work, but either way, man."
While the Philly airport has not had TSA agent “sickouts,” as have been reported elsewhere, Shuker said some of his members may not be able to afford to get to work next week. Miami International Airport has said it would close one of its six terminals early Saturday, Sunday, and Monday because of a lack of TSA officers. Currently, there are no plans to close Philadelphia airport terminals, said airport spokesperson Diane Gerace.
But the shutdown has already hurt the airline industry, according to unions representing workers ranging from flight attendants to pilots and air traffic controllers. On Thursday they sent a letter to President Donald Trump, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell urging them to end the shutdown.
The association representing thousands of FBI agents took a similar approach, sending a petition Thursday to the White House and congressional leaders encouraging them to fund the FBI immediately, saying problems caused by the shutdown could make it harder to recruit and retain agents, cause delays at the FBI lab, and in getting or renewing security clearances.
Staff writers Jeremy Roebuck and Catherine Dunn contributed to this report.