WASHINGTON — More than two weeks after being sent home without pay, Ashaki Robinson said she’s thought about whether she would be better off leaving her job in the public service.
“It’s definitely something that’s crossed my mind over the last couple of days,” Robinson, an analyst at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, said. “But it’s not something that I would just easily walk away from. I stay at HUD because I believe in the mission. I like what we do. I believe in the work that we do. And I think that we make a difference.”
For Robinson and other federal workers who spoke to BuzzFeed News, this partial government shutdown is the latest in a series of frustrations of working for increasingly understaffed agencies that are stretched thin for funding and susceptible to an unstable political climate.
Although President Donald Trump speculated last week that federal workers going without pay would encourage him to keep the government shutdown going, several federal employees who aren’t drawing paychecks right now told BuzzFeed News they don’t understand why this shutdown is happening at all.
Robinson said she started working for the government 13 years ago because she wanted to do something where she could help people but “not be in the poorhouse and maybe buy a home, buy a car.”
Now, for the second time in five years, she has no idea when her next paycheck will come. (There have been a few other shutdowns in the interim, but none have lasted long.) Robinson is one of more than 380,000 federal employees who have been furloughed. At her agency, HUD, 95% of the workforce has been sent home without pay — around 7,100 people.
“Having stability, that is the one thing that almost since I got here hasn’t really been here the way that I had expected,” she said, remembering the series of shutdowns government workers have gone through in the past several years. This time, it’s hitting her even harder because she’s in the middle of a divorce and trying to provide for her two kids, 13 and 7 years old.
“I was in a different financial situation. It hurt but it didn’t break me,” she said of previous shutdowns. “But right now I can’t just be off for two or three weeks at a time, and especially when there’s not a real reason. I mean, I don’t know what reason I would be okay with, but I can tell you this is not the reason.”
Another 420,000 federal employees are being forced to work without pay because their jobs are considered “essential.”
Shekina Givens, who works in the security screening operation at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson Airport, is working a side job in maintenance after she finishes her unpaid shifts at the airport so she doesn’t fall behind on her bills.
She said working for the government is not what she had hoped it would be when she started working for the Transportation Security Administration 10 years ago at the age of 22. Givens said she often thinks about whether she’d be better off working for herself or in the private sector.
“Starting to work with the federal government, everybody tells you, ‘Hey, you’ve got a good job now. You’re working for the government. You’re set. Your retirement’s set. Just stick with it. It’s a good job,” she said.
And she said it’s gratifying to think that she’s “potentially saving lives” through her work, it’s hard to watch private sector colleagues and friends she went to school with moving up and finding it easier to establish themselves financially.
“They’re escalating at a faster rate than you are, or they’re able to take care of their families differently,” she said.
Givens, an American Federation of Government Employees union representative for TSA workers in Georgia, says the shutdown is exacerbating frustrations among TSA workers who are already dealing with high-stress jobs and, unlike many other agencies, do not have automatic promotions and raises as workers accrue years at the agency.
“Even without a government shutdown, a lot of people may believe that TSA officers are making a good amount of money,” she said, “But a lot of our officers, especially if they have dependents and children, do fall behind and are on food stamps or other kinds of government assistance.”
Givens pointed out that many members of Congress flew home for the holidays and came back for the new session in January, using TSA services without paying the workers tasked with keeping them safe.
Other government employees who have been furloughed since before Christmas say they feel betrayed by lawmakers who are letting the shutdown continue and preventing them from doing their jobs.
“We all in the civil service took an oath to protect our mission and the Constitution, and while [lawmakers] still are being paid for their services, they are absolutely violating that,” said Loreen Targos, a scientist at the Great Lakes program office for the Environmental Protection Agency.
Despite the stress and uncertainty involved with being a furloughed government worker at the moment, Targos said there aren’t a lot of other places she can do her specific kind of work.
“A lot of us are highly specialized in the work we do, engineers and scientists and stuff, and we’ve contributed a great deal of our life’s work to becoming experts in our field,” she said. "It’s not like we can just be like, 'Hey, anyone got any contamination they want to check on?' And then the labs are closed too, so it’s not like we can send our samples back to get analyzed.”
Jae Lee, a data transcriber for the Department of the Treasury in Austin, is another furloughed government worker who despite the uncertainty of the shutdown says they will not leave their government job.
Lee, a single parent who served in the Army for 10 years, is determined to stay in the public service despite worrying that there might be more extended shutdowns under the Trump administration.
“I’ve worked for the private sector. I don’t like it. And I come from a military and a federal public service family,” they said. “They take the best care of their families. I’m mentally ill also, and they’re a lot more understanding.”
They added that they found previous shutdowns easier to plan for and that they usually didn’t as long.
“This doesn’t happen often,” they said. “I don’t blame anybody but the president. I am worried, but it’s something that I’m going to have to figure out how to deal with.”
Lee has applied for unemployment benefits — the first payment will come through on the 13th, but they’re not sure how much they’re getting and that will be “basically when [they] run out of money,” they said.
They said they’ve told their 9-year-old daughter that they won’t be able to go out to or buy her favorite food for a while.
“I told her: No, this time it’s serious. Mommy can’t work,” they said.