Washington • The IRS worker in the Ogden area was already the sole breadwinner for a family of five and short on cash around Christmastime.
And then the federal government shut down. For 35 painful days.
“It literally happened at the worst possible time of [the] year,” the worker wrote in a new report that highlights challenges federal employees in Utah faced — and some still face — because of the Washington impasse that furloughed hundreds of thousands of federal workers across the country for more than a month.
The employee, who isn’t identified in the new report by Weber State University, said work had piled up so much during the shutdown, the person had to work five times as hard to dig out from under.
“Many issues have arisen due to shutdown and doesn't look like it is getting any better,” the person said. There's “way too much stress at work now and [that] translates into family life as well.”
The study surveyed more than 100 employees in Weber and Davis counties, especially in the Ogden area that is home to many federal offices, and found not only financial struggles but also mental health concerns.
More than 35 percent of those questioned said they missed a rent or mortgage payment and about 30 percent went to a free food bank or took advantage of free meals. One person wrote about staying in bed as much as possible to keep the heat on low and eat less.
About 60 percent said they applied to skip or defer payments on credit cards, mortgages or loans during a time they missed three consecutive paychecks. Some reported not being able to defer payments and racked up fees ranging from $100 to $999.
And the stress of the shutdown, which affected thousands of Utahns, has continued. More than two-thirds of respondents said they were very or somewhat concerned about their finances — still — and this has created ongoing worries or problems.
“It’s not over yet,” wrote one federal worker who said her husband lost his job shortly before the shutdown and they can't catch up.
“I was struggling prior,” she wrote. “It is still a very real possibility that this whole shutdown attitude and political people using federal employees as game pawns to get their way, might still be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. My life has a real possibility of ending in suicide. But, hey, the folks in Washington gotta do what they gotta do, right? There’s gonna be some peripheral damage along the way.”
The comment underscores one of the studies findings: the need for mental health care and quicker responses to those in need.
More than 70 percent of those surveyed reported high anxiety and stress during the shutdown but very few received professional help. That was exacerbated, the study suggests, by the possibility it took too long to get an appointment, the individuals didn't want to reach out for help or they didn't know where to go.
In retrospect, said one of the study’s authors, WSU economic development director Guy Letendre, we know that in the end the government workers went back to work and got back pay. Those who worked without pay — like Transportation Security Administration officers — got their money, too.
But at the time, they didn’t know when it would end, and those furloughed had no guarantee of being made whole.
“When it was the fifth week and you didn’t know if it might be another three months," Letendre said, “that would’ve been a terrible feeling.”
The study notes that President Donald Trump had threatened to continue the shutdown for “years,” and, at several points, negotiations with Congress broke down with no end in sight. (The shutdown began when Trump demanded billions to build a border wall along the U.S.-Mexico border and Democrats balked; Trump eventually relented with few concessions.)
“People could say that although there was an expectation that [furloughed federal workers] would get back pay," Letendre said, “but they didn’t have the cash flow during that time and nor could they really find a job because they didn’t know if the next day they might be called back for work.”
Letendre said the study, which was underwritten by Weber and Davis counties and Ogden, is aimed at identifying what ways the region can be prepared should there be another government shutdown or if a major employer suddenly closes.
That could mean efforts from ensuring those in need know how to access food banks, boosting the number of health care workers and educating people about what options they have for staying afloat.
“A number of lending institutions and businesses really stepped up and helped those people out during that period of time so that was a great story from that,” Letendre said. “And we’re hoping that we can combine the gaps that we’ve found in the survey with the positive things that worked.”