How to deal with the shutdown if you’re a federal employee

Take these financial steps as the partial federal government shutdown drags on into 2019.

Many federal workers living paycheck-to-paycheck haven’t yet felt an income shock because of the partial government shutdown.

Most federal employees received their last check based on time worked before the shutdown began on Dec. 21. Some, who were required to work the Saturday following the shutdown — the last day of the pay period — weren’t paid for one day, according to Tony Reardon, national president of the National Treasury Employees Union.

But if the shutdown continues into the next pay cycle and paychecks aren’t retroactively restored, many people will face extreme hardship. Already this political tug-of-war has harmed government contractors and people working in businesses that cater to and depend on money from federal employees. Much of the lost revenue and wages won’t be recovered.

A 2015 study for the National Bureau of Economic Research looked at the impact of the 2013 federal government shutdown. The pay of a typical affected worker was 40 percent below normal. The government was closed Oct. 1-16, which included four days of the previous federal pay period, according to the report. By the next pay period, however, employees were back at work and were reimbursed for the wages they lost while furloughed.

But look how little people had prepared for such a financial emergency.

“Many affected workers maintained low levels of liquid assets (checking and saving account balances), especially in the days just before their regular paychecks arrive,” the study found. “Prior to the shutdown, the median worker … held an average liquid assets balance sufficient to cover just eight days of average spending.”

A disruption in your income can create a paralyzing situation. If you’re affected by the shutdown, you need to act fast. Here are moves to make when your paycheck is stopped.

Talk to your landlord or lender. I was stunned to see that the Office of Personnel Management posted a sample letter to government workers suggesting that they barter for rent reductions. OPM proposed that people offer to perform maintenance such as painting or carpentry work in exchange for a rent break due to being furloughed.

OPM pulled that letter saying it was released by mistake. The agency said it was a letter from the 2013 shutdown. Whenever it was written, it was an idiotic recommendation. Professionally run rental complexes typically have staff or contractors who maintain their properties.

Nonetheless, OPM is right in encouraging employees to immediately contact their landlords and explain their situation. Find out what, if any, relief you can get.

If you have a mortgage, call your lender. Ask about deferring January’s payment if you don’t have enough in savings. Get a clear understanding of your options and any fees that may still be imposed.

OPM has posted two sensible template letters that you can use to try to get concessions in writing. Personalize them with your individual information. Go to OPM and click the link on the homepage that says “Funding Lapse.” On the information page, look for “Sample Letters for Creditors and Mortgage Companies.”

Call your creditors. Don’t wait until you’ve missed a check to see what reprieve you can get from any credit bills due in January. Also ask that the credit-card company not report you as late, which can significantly ding your credit history.

Delay debt reduction. Until the shutdown is over, just make your minimum payments if you aren’t able to delay a payment. You need to preserve your cash. Concentrate on covering essential expenses.

Cut back on nonessentials now. There’s reason to hope the shutdown won’t last much longer, but what if it does? I see a lot of budgets, and many people living paycheck-to-paycheck are paying $200 to $300 a month for their cable and internet package. Before January’s bill comes due, cut back on your service. You probably should do this anyway.

I fully understand that many workers are barely able to pay for basic needs — food, rent, utilities, etc. So having excess cash just sitting in a savings account isn’t doable. As Reardon pointed out, we should show some empathy for people living paycheck-to-paycheck. They don’t need to be shamed.

At the same time, there are workers — you know who you are — who can afford to live on less so that they can save more. For all of us, the shutdown is a reminder of how essential it is to have an emergency fund.

— Washington Post Writers Group

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