Food or cancer medication? Trump’s shutdown is forcing federal workers to make tough choices

PHILADELPHIA, PA - JANUARY 08: Meghan Powell holds a placard stating "I'd rather be WORKING for the GREATER GOOD" joining fellow furloughed federal workers and area elected officials at a protest rally in front of Independence Hall on January 8, 2019 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The government shutdown, now lasting 18 days, marks the second longest United States in history, affecting about 800,000 federal employees. (Photo by Mark Makela/Getty Images)
Federal workers rally to call for the government to re-open

Some federal workers are lawyers and scientists making six figures. Most aren’t: The average take-home pay is about $500 a week, the largest union of federal workers says. The New York Times took a break from interviewing Donald Trump supporters in diners to talk to some of the federal workers who are struggling without paychecks during Trump’s government shutdown. 

That includes workers taking on side jobs like temping or driving Uber or babysitting. It’s not just workers who are furloughed at home, either. Prison guards are on the job without pay, so for one in Florida, “This weekend, family time is going to be Uber time.” Another corrections officer, in Seattle, who is often working double shifts at an understaffed prison, faces a horrible choice:

“I’m on a lot of medications, because I’m a year out from being a breast cancer survivor, so I have to make the decision — do I refill all of my medications even before I need them, because I might not have the money later, or do I pay for the child care?” Ms. Tucker said. “Or do I buy food?”

In the Bronx, an assistant investigator at the Department of Housing and Urban Development is so worried about paying her $1,400 rent that she’s eating the dregs of her kitchen: “stuff that you buy when you’re food shopping and nobody eats it.”

The Trump administration is trying to head off emergencies one at a time, keeping the shutdown going by blunting its most attention-grabbing possible effects, like people not getting their IRS refunds or 38 million people losing food aid. But 800,000 people forced to decide between breast cancer medication and food, or going hungry to avoid eviction, or selling plasma is also an emergency—and an emergency that could make it even more difficult for the government to come back from this shutdown as experienced workers find other jobs and move on.

But Donald Trump wants his wall.

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