Idled federal workers fear lengthy downtime

The partial government shutdown this week drizzled uncertainty on tens of thousands of households in metro Atlanta, applying a financial pressure that will ratchet higher the longer it goes on.

A few federal workers who spoke to the AJC this week expressed a mix of emotions, most saying they had expected the shutdown to be averted and voicing concern that an extended standoff could cause them serious financial damage.

John Gerstle

Age: 44

Job: data manager, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Gerstle has worked for the CDC since mid-2002 and knew a shutdown was possible. But he didn’t take any particular financial precautions.

“I was hoping that the Congress would do what it needed to do. I am pretty angry that they did not.”

He is one of about 9,000 employees at the Atlanta-based CDC who were out of work on Tuesday.

Gerstle, 44, lives in Decatur with his wife and three children. His wife works only part-time. He is not looking forward to going without a paycheck.

“Maybe we’ll eat a lot of mayonnaise sandwiches … I honestly have no idea what we’ll do. Nobody knows how long this will go.”

His personal worries are sharpened by the feeling that he is neglecting important work.

“We collect data and check to see how well programs are working at preventing several diseases,” he said. “We also see how often some diseases are infecting the American people.

“It’s already too long to be out,” Gerstle said. “I have a lot of work to do. There are a lot of programs and a lot of data coming in and we need to get this stuff done.”

Priscilla Oliver

Age: “60-something”

Job: life scientist, Environmental Protection Agency

Oliver, of Atlanta, has worked at the Environmental Protection Agency since 1978.

She is president of the union local that represents EPA scientists, engineers and attorneys.

“I represent people who probably planned better than others, but you still have needs and expenses and kids in school,” she said.

As for herself, she is looking for ways to save money. “Maybe you don’t drive as much. You don’t go to restaurants. You don’t send money to organizations that you used to.”

She’s recently dropped membership to the Atlanta Zoo and to a local museum.

“I also just let my pastor know that we got shut down,” Oliver said. “I think the church is going to feel it. A lot of us are in the church.”

Jeanette McElhaney

Age: 64

Job: information management, Warner Robins Air Force Base in central Georgia

The furlough hits hardest for people who don’t have a lot of financial room to maneuver, said McElhane, who is among legions of Defense Department civilian workers idled by the shutdown.

“It is not good at all. A lot of us live sort of payday to payday.”

Still, she thinks there are ways to snip spending.

“There are going to have to be cutbacks, some things that I have taken for granted,” she said. “I know I won’t be going out to eat. We won’t be doing any trips. I can give up premium channels on cable.”

At the same time, she said she is acutely aware that many of the bills she owes are to local people. “They need my money so they can take care of their own families.”

Monica L. Ponder

Age: 33

Job: epidemiologist and health communicator, Centers for Disease Control

A 7-year CDC veteran, Ponder said her first reaction to news of the shutdown was disappointment with Congress.

“I thought they’d get it together,” she said. “My second emotion is to be scared. I am powerless. I don’t think I can do anything.”

Ponder, who has degrees from Clark Atlanta University and Emory University, has been working toward a doctorate at Georgia State.

She’s dealing with the added stress of her furlough, in part, by exercising. “I’ve been to Zumba three times this week,” she said. “I am leaning on the camaraderie of the women there.”

She said her “significant other” has a job that eases short-term financial damage. But if the furlough goes on will it be a problem?

“One month, no,” she said. “Two months, yes.”

She’s already taken some steps.

“I haven’t eaten out for the last couple of weeks,” she said. “I’ve saved on gas and limited my local travel. Fortunately, I recently refinanced my home for a lower rate and payment, which has saved a lot of stress. I will continue to preserve my finances, be smart with my spending, and wait this out. That’s really all I can do.”

Mary Claire Danowitz

Age: 23

Job: Worker for AmeriCorps in Nashville

Danowitz, of East Cobb, has been in the suburbs of Nashville for a little more than two months working for AmeriCorps. Although she’s called a volunteer as part of the VISA program – Volunteers in Service to America – she is paid about $12,000 per year.

She’s been in an office devoted to adult literacy, putting together curricula and working with churches and community groups.

She said she was told to keep working, but not to expect a paycheck while the shutdown continues.

“If this goes on, maybe for two weeks more, then I’ll start having issues,” she said.

The AmeriCorps website on Tuesday displayed just a brief note explaining that the site was not available “due to the lapse in government funding.”

Danowitz shares an apartment. Her share is about $550 a month.

“I don’t get out to eat much anyways, but this will be a time period where I don’t go out at all for fun.”

Stacy Shelton

Age: 47

Job: public affairs specialist, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Shelton expected the shutdown, but that hasn’t made it any more welcome.

“I thought, because we came so close before, I didn’t think we’d dodge the bullet again,” she said. Now her concern is how long it lasts. “I’m a little worried … I’m very worried.”

She lives in a Midtown condo with her partner, who has just started a business. Money was tight even before the furlough.

“We had been cutting back on expenses already,” she said. “If it goes on much longer, I’ll think of taking out a loan on my 401(k). We are seriously on the edge.”

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