Government Shutdown's Trickle-Down Effect

Labor Department employee Valerie A. Parker discusses the stress of being out of work, however temporarily.

Posted: 10/09/2013 10:45 AM EDT

Telephone calls from debt collectors are never pleasant, unless of course, you can tell them what they want to hear and are prepared to follow through. Imagine having to say, "I'm sorry, sir, but the government has shut down and I don't know when or if I will be paid or back to work."

That is what happened to Valerie A. Parker, who has worked for the U.S. Department of Labor for 30-plus years and is currently a contact representative for the agency's worker's compensation program.

"I said I could send $25 and they tried to talk me into paying more even though I explained I'm without a job right now and don't know if we're going to get retroactive pay," she told BET.com.

This isn't Parker's first experience with a government shutdown. In 1995 and 1996, the D.C. resident found herself furloughed for about three weeks while President Clinton and congressional Republicans duked it out over funding the 1996 federal budget.

But this time around is more difficult for many federal workers who were forced to take unpaid furlough days throughout the summer as a result of the across-the-board budget cuts known as the sequester.

"A lot of us, no matter what pay grade we are, are living paycheck to paycheck. I am one who is truly living paycheck to paycheck," said Parker, who must also help support her son who is currently receiving treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder after two tours in Iraq.

Adding insult to injury, Parker, 58, had been told she was an "essential" employee and reported to work on the first day of the shutdown as ordered. But, after putting in some hours, she and several other colleagues were sent home.

Parker said it has been mentally stressful, "not knowing whether we're going to be paid, if we have a job to go back to or when Congress is going come to terms and end the shutdown."

After she spoke to BET.com, the House unanimously voted to pay workers retroactively, which they applaud, but that bill won't pay the bills employees must pay in the coming days or weeks while waiting to go back to work.

An engaged member of the American Federation of Government Employees, Parker has been hearing horror stories about the shutdown's trickle-down effect on fellow federal employees and people whose incomes depend on their patronage.

She spoke with empathy for the friend of a friend employed at a restaurant frequented by government workers whose hours have been cut because business has slowed during the shutdown. Parker also sympathized with a food truck vendor who has operated outside government agency buildings for the past ten years, but now can't work while the government is closed and has college tuitions to pay.

"This is affecting a lot of people. I really don't know how long I can survive," says Parker in a voice filled with worry. "Congress needs to stop playing these cat-and-mouse games. We want to go back to work."

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(Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images)

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