How Utah federal workers cope with the government shutdown, from delayed engagements to cutting back on groceries

(Elaine Thompson | Associated Press) The tiny Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park in Seattle's historic Pioneer Square neighborhood is posted with a closed sign as part of the federal government shutdown Wednesday, Dec. 26, 2018. The shutdown started Saturday, Dec. 22, when funding lapsed for nine Cabinet-level departments and dozens of agencies.

The partial government shutdown has forced one federal worker in Utah to look long and hard at returning even the cheap stocking-stuffer Christmas gifts he just bought.

Another decided to put off plans to buy a wedding ring for his girlfriend. Others are cutting back on groceries, wondering how to make mortgage payments and praying that their savings hold out longer than the shutdown.

Many bristle at jokes about how they really aren’t needed. Some hate being pawns in political battles. And some, frankly, are enjoying what they see as a paid vacation.

The Salt Lake Tribune reached out through its website for federal employees’ reactions to the shutdown — which has stretched on since Dec. 22 as Congress and President Donald Trump are at a stalemate over whether to fund a wall along the Mexican border.

The newspaper is not using the names of most of the workers because they fear it could affect their jobs.

One IRS employee told how his wife had just bought some cheap stocking stuffers for Christmas, and then the shutdown started looming.

“We saved most of the money we used for the occasion, but we had a discussion at length about returning half of what little we had actually purchased,” he said. “It was a stressful discussion, to say the least. I had to reassure her that there were alternative ways to get a little money to hold us through.”

This Dec. 17, 2018 photo shows handmade earrings hanging on a Christmas tree in Hopkinton, N.H., which make for inexpensive stocking stuffers. This pair shown here are made from fringe trim more commonly used on pillows and other home goods. (AP Photo/Holly Ramer)

One Forest Service worker said he needs to fix a broken window, take a cat to the veterinarian and had hoped to buy a wedding ring but was delaying all that amid tight finances from the shutdown.

“If I’m not paid on Jan. 11 and I spend zero dollars on gas or groceries between now and then, I will run out of money to pay bills on Jan. 18 and will have to break into the emergency fund.”

He adds, “It’s a bunch of uncertainty and stress that is not welcome. … It feels like I’m a hostage, and it really hurts to see cruel comments about how people are ‘glad’ the government is shut down.”

An IRS manager said he is forced to work without pay as a key employee. So while other furloughed employees could seek unemployment benefits (and may need to reimburse the state if they are later paid back wages), he cannot do that because he is still technically working.

“I’m kind of stuck between a rock and a hard place," he said. “I don’t know where funds to maintain my regular bills will come from. And I’m working, so I can’t go out and find other employment to fill the holes.”

FILE - In this Thursday, March 3, 2016, file photo, people attend an employment orientation class at the Georgia Department of Labor office in Atlanta. On Thursday, March 17, 2016, the Labor Department reports on the number of people who applied for unemployment benefits in the previous week. (AP Photo/David Goldman, File)

That manager adds, “I joined the federal workforce hoping for a stable job after years of contract work. Now I’ve gone through four shutdowns in the last five years.”

He said things may be worse for government contractors, because many also cannot work during the shutdown — and they usually do not have their pay later reimbursed as federal employees usually do.

“They burn through their vacation time, if they have any, without being able to take their family on a vacation,” he said.

One Health and Human Services Department worker said, “Our family will have no income if the shutdown drags on for a long period of time as my husband and I are both employed by the federal government,” making it tough to pay bills.

She also is still working without pay because she was deemed to be a key worker. “We will get retroactive pay once the shutdown ends,” but she adds the trick is surviving until then and hopes that her savings hold out that long.

A National Park Service worker wrote that she is “looking at short-term loans or pulling from my own retirement account to pay bills” as the shutdown lengthens.

Gary Widdison is a retired State Department diplomat who went through past shutdowns and criticizes them as a waste of taxpayer money.

“Furloughed employees are always reimbursed for lost time when the shutdown ends. So the taxpayer saves no money, but ends up paying for work that wasn’t done,” he said. “It is tough for those government employees who live paycheck to paycheck, but for some staff it amounts to a paid vacation.”

He adds, “These things are a cruel joke by Congress on the American citizenry.”

Another retiree, Michael Budig, said that in past shutdowns, “I personally enjoyed the extra free time off but always knew I would have a big backlog waiting when I got back to work. I would hesitate to make nonessential purchases. I thought it was a ridiculous waste of tax dollars.”

Many employees are not happy with the feuding politicians who caused the shutdown, nor people who criticize federal workers.

FILE - In this Friday, Dec. 21, 2018 file photo, President Donald Trump makes a statement on the possible government shutdown before signing criminal justice reform legislation in the Oval Office of the White House, in Washington. Nancy Pelosi and Trump both think they have public sentiment on their side in the battle over a border wall. That theory will be put the test this week when the new House Democratic majority led by Pelosi gavels into session with legislation to end the government shutdown. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File)

One IRS employee wrote, “I don’t like comments from heavily conservative family members that this wall [that Trump wants on the Mexican border] is necessary. They forget it is affecting me,” he said. “I do not like being spoken for. The president doesn’t know my position on the shutdown and should not assume my support.”

Another worker wrote, “It is entirely within the president’s power to end the shutdown, but he is a coward and petty tyrant who likes to talk tough.”

Another said, “I believe it’s only fair that Congress go without pay along with every other civilian employee affected by the shutdown.”

Another said if shutdowns “become a regular thing, I may look for work in the private sector until there is a new president.”