Washington, DC — As a single dad with seven kids living at home, Bill Blevins is used to pinching every penny.
The 48-year-old building engineer at the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing hasn’t had a cost-of-living pay raise in more than two years, even as his rent and insurance premiums went up. Now he and other federal workers in Washington and across the country are bracing for possible unpaid furloughs as part of an $85 billion reduction in federal spending. Known as sequestration, the automatic, across-the-board budget cuts are scheduled to kick in unless Congress and the White House can reach a compromise by Friday.
Although Blevins doesn’t expect furloughs to hit his office right away – so far the bureau says it plans to operate as usual – the uncertainty makes him take his ulcer medicine a little more often these days.
“I’ll have to keep a bottle nearby” if furloughs hit, he joked.
“Rent’s due the first of the month whether I’m furloughed or not,” said Blevins, who commutes from his home in Culpeper, Va., to his night shift job in Washington. “You just really have to squeeze a little more out of each dollar. That’s just what it comes down to.”
All across the D.C. area and the rest of the country, federal workers like Blevins are having tense, belt-tightening conversations with spouses, kids and co-workers. They’re canceling little luxuries such as cable, cellphone service, restaurants and movie nights, putting off long-planned vacations and searching for second jobs. Some are thinking about raiding their 401(k)s for emergency cash.
It’s lost on none of them that they’re being forced to slash their own families’ budgets because politicians can’t agree on how to balance the federal budget.
“They expect us to do our jobs, so we expect them to do their jobs,” said Marsha Hayden, a 61-year-old microbiologist with the Food and Drug Administration from Adelphi, Md.
“I am a registered Republican. However, I blame the Republican Party for this,” said Gregory Russell, a 48-year-old federal firefighter at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md. Russell calculates he’d lose about $1,200 a month – about 20 percent of his pay – if he gets furloughed.
“I’m tired of people being obstinate,” he said. “Sit down at the table, listen to the other side, everybody give a little compromise back and forth and get it resolved. Instead, we spend a lot of time doing showmanship about the other side when they could actually be doing something to resolve it.”
The mounting dread and anger are particularly palpable in the Washington metropolitan area, where federal spending added up to $170 billion last year – 39 percent of the local economy.
The Maryland, Virginia and D.C. region is home to 4.7 percent of the U.S. population but it receives 15 percent of defense spending and 21 percent of federal payroll and procurement dollars, said Stephen Fuller, the director of the Center for Regional Analysis at George Mason University’s School of Public Policy.
“We’re less diversified than the other big metro areas,” Fuller said. “It’s a government town.”
Government money may have shielded the region from the worst of the recession, but that cushion has disappeared, cutting the local economy’s growth rate in half the past two years, Fuller said. Federal spending on contracting has dropped more than 8 percent since its peak in 2010, and the area’s federal workforce shrank by 8,700 in the same period, he said.
But if sequestration has become an angst-ridden buzzword in the Washington area, the awkward term isn’t exactly rolling off people’s tongues elsewhere in the United States.
Only 18 percent of Americans say they understand “very well” what would happen as a consequence of the budget cuts, according to a Washington Post-Pew Research Center poll released this week. Although the topic has seized Washington’s attention for weeks, just one in four Americans say they’re following the debate in the nation’s capital very closely.
Gretchen Carreiro, a 41-year-old program specialist for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said it felt as if the rest of the country had little sympathy for federal workers’ plight.
“It’s like your job doesn’t even count. It’s like you should be doing it for free because you work for the taxpayers, so you kind of feel like it’s a slap in the face,” she said.
Carreiro said her family already lived paycheck to paycheck, and she worries that she won’t be able to pay the bills if she’s forced to take unpaid days off. “I have no clue what we would do if the mortgage companies didn’t work with us, if our car loan companies didn’t work with us. We’d lose everything,” said Carreiro, who lives with her husband and two children in Manassas, Va. "We’re just praying, you know?”
What really rankles, she said, is that members of Congress don’t face the same pay cuts as federal workers.
“I think it’s ridiculous,” she said. “They’re still going to get their paychecks, and I feel like they’re using us as scapegoat.”
At the L’Enfant Plaza Hotel, not far from the National Mall, the threat of furloughs was the number one topic of discussion Wednesday at a conference of the National Treasury Employees Union, an independent federal union that represents 150,000 employees in 31 government agencies and departments.
In a survey of union members in late February, 82 percent said that if furloughs were implemented they’d have difficulty paying for the basics, such as rent, mortgage, utilities and food. Sixty-three percent expected to take money out of savings or retirement, and 29 percent said they’d have a hard time paying for child care or tuition.
Internal Revenue Service employee Joe Gaston’s family might take a double hit, because his wife works for the Department of Defense. He and other IRS workers were just told to expect five to seven furlough days before September.
“It’s a difficult proposition right now because we don’t know what’s ahead of us,” said Gaston, 56, of Alexandria, Va. “You have a mortgage to pay, and they do not accept that you send 90 percent of the payment.”
Keith McGlawn, an IT technician with U.S. Customs and Border Protection, said he expected 14 days off without pay before Sept. 30, which amounts to a 10 percent pay cut. McGlawn already has started looking for a second, part-time job to make up for the lost income.
“I’m trying to stay ahead of the curve instead of being behind it,” said McGlawn, 46, of Manassas, Va. He described the mood among colleagues at his agency as panic.
The growing anxiety over furloughs isn’t limited to the D.C. area. The vast majority – 85 percent – of federal workers live far outside the Beltway, in states where they work at law enforcement agencies, in food plants, military bases, national parks, veterans’ hospitals and federal branch offices.
In Westminster, Mass., William “Bud” Taylor II woke up at 3 a.m. the other day, thinking, “How the hell am I going to handle this?”
The 56-year-old project manager for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said he’d done the math and if he were furloughed as expected for one day a week from April to September, he’d lose 20 percent of his pay. His expenses will exceed his income.
“Over the last couple weeks it has just been sheer terror,” he said.
“I can’t believe this is real and these idiots aren’t going to do anything about it,” he said, referring to Congress. “They’re just going to point fingers at each other.”