In St. Louis, furloughed employees at the Agriculture Department’s rural development program coped in different ways. Patricia Battle, an accountant, was keeping the thermostat down in the home she shares with her husband, a veteran; her college-age son; and her 10-year-old grandson. “I’ve been wearing layers in the house,” said Ms. Battle, who earns about $70,000 a year. “Sweaters, warm clothes and two pairs of socks.”
On Thursday evening, Ms. Battle attended a meeting of her college alumni group, whose other members, unaffected by the shutdown, were surprised to learn that she was out of work.
“When they come into the knowledge that we’re not being paid, it’s like, ‘Oh my,’” she said.
At one point, two members of the group took her aside and murmured a quiet prayer, asking God to keep her covered. “I really appreciated that,” Ms. Battle said. “It made me feel like someone had a heart.”
And Rick Willenberg, 31, who earns $41,000 a year as a loan processor for the rural development program, is worrying about how to pay his own mortgage bill. “It’s so arbitrary,” he said. He had never before applied for unemployment insurance, but when he heard President Trump say the shutdown could go on for “months or even years,” he said, “I thought I better go ahead and file.”
Both he and his older brother, Steve Willenberg — who lives in a nearby suburb with his family — were drawn to work for the government out of a sense of civic duty, nurtured by a mother who is a nurse and a father who worked for General Motors. “We live pretty identical lives,” Rick said.
Except that the Department of Veterans Affairs, where Steve works processing benefits, is funded. So while his younger brother protested the furlough outside the federal office complex in wind-whipped weather, Steve was enjoying the last day of his scheduled paid vacation in Playa del Carmen, Mexico, where he swam with dolphins and drank piña coladas by the beach.
“For the months of January and February, my department is on mandatory overtime of 20 hours a month” to correct widespread delays in benefit payments caused by computer glitches, said Steve Willenberg. “Compare that to my brother not knowing when his next paycheck is going to come.”