Financial pressure builds on Minnesota federal employees caught in shutdown

TSA employee Celia Hahn talks about working without a paycheck.
TSA employee Celia Hahn talks about working without a paycheck during the federal government shutdown. She is standing next to U.S. Sen. Tina Smith, D-Minn., who invited federal workers to tell their stories about the shutdown's impact.
Brian Bakst | MPR News

Mike and Jacquie Weber are reporting as usual to their shifts at a federal correctional facility in Sandstone, Minn. He's part of a unit that does inmate investigations; she's a case manager.

With the funding stalemate in Washington now three weeks old, neither is getting paid for the hours they're putting in.

"We do have a little bit of a buffer, but when both people in the household work there, a buffer doesn't last as long as you think," Mike Weber said.

They're squeezing anything discretionary out of the family budget — even the packs of fruit snacks and 99-cent "Bug Juice" drinks Weber's son is accustomed to getting during stops at the gas station near their home in Askov, Minn.

"I have got to respond to him with, 'mom and dad don't get a lot of money right now.' He always responds to me and looks at me and says, 'but you go to work. Why do you go to work?' Try explaining that to a four-year-old and it's a little tough," he said.

Their plight isn't all that unusual. Bill Axford works as a teacher at the federal prison in Rochester, Minn. There are more than a dozen couples there where husband and wife both work at the facility, with several others the sole income earners for their families, Axford said.

As the shutdown drags on, Axford said the staff has started its own emergency food bank. Community members are planning food drives, too.

"It's going to be really hard for a lot of officers and other workers to swallow their pride and do it. But it's there if they need it."

Axford said employees are watching for signs of stress among their colleagues as they all muddle through. He fixed a coworker's snowblower to save him from a repair shop bill.

"Little things like that will make a huge difference in the long run. But it comes down to if someone needs to borrow a couple hundred bucks and one of us has it, that's great," Axford said. "Pretty soon none of us are going to have it to give is the problem."

There are about 5,400 federal employees in Minnesota affected by the shutdown because the agencies they work for aren't funded, according to Governing Magazine.

Democrats in Congress and President Trump are divided over the path to reopening the government. Trump insists he won't sign off on bills unless there's money for a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border.

A bill that passed the Senate without opposition this week would guarantee back pay for affected federal employees. Trump said Friday at the White House that he would sign it.

"I think that's a very important gesture," said U.S. Sen. Tina Smith, D-Minn., "but it's not paychecks for folks who need to pay their bills."

Sixteen-year Transportation Security Agency employee Celia Hahn is among those still on the job but with no pay coming in. She called her mortgage company this week to ask about payment leniency if the shutdown stretches into next month.

For now, Hahn is raiding her own vacation fund to make ends meet.

"My yearly trip to Belize," she sighed.

"I save for fun things, I don't save for not getting paychecks," she continued. "But maybe I need to change my priorities."

If there's one upside to the shutdown, Hahn said, it's the way the traveling public has responded. Passengers have tried to leave cash tips, coffee gift cards and other tokens of gratitude. But the officers aren't allowed to accept the handouts.

"Right now they're all thankful we're here doing our jobs," Hahn said. "And it's at least pleasant."