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Shutdown drags on and St. Louis area workers delay retirement, visit food pantries and turn to relatives

Shutdown drags on and St. Louis area workers delay retirement, visit food pantries and turn to relatives

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Rennie Stonewall and her fiancé had just paid the necessary deposits for their wedding in March when the federal government was partially shut down and she was furloughed from her job.

With that money tied up, she’s now wondering how she’ll pay the bills for a major surgery she will undergo next week and cover fees for the St. Charles Community College classes she’s taking to finish her degree, on top of other bills and daily expenses. She’s unable to take a temporary job because of the impending surgery.

“I was thinking (the shutdown) would maybe be a week,” said Stonewall, a St. Louisan who has worked as an office assistant with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission for five years. “I didn’t think it would be this long. I didn’t think it would be possible to let this many people go without knowing if they were going to get paid or not.”

Stonewall, 34, is among about 12,000 federal employees in Missouri in financial limbo as the partial government shutdown over President Donald Trump’s demand for a border wall enters its 21st day on Friday. If the shutdown continues into Saturday, it will become the longest in U.S. history.

Sophia Cluck, 66, had been through three previous government shutdowns in her 32 years in federal government, starting with the Department of Housing and Urban Development and most recently with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. But the doors shut before she was set to retire Jan. 3 and file the necessary paperwork for her pension. Her last paycheck normally would have arrived this weekend.

“I can’t even get into the office and clean out my desk or get my laptop,” said Cluck, who lives in St. Louis County. “Right now everything is up in the air.”

Cluck’s husband, who is partially retired, was planning to join her in retiring fully and finding part-time jobs that aligned with their hobbies, she said. But now, she’s looking for immediate full-time work.

“I don’t know when I’ll be going back, when I’ll be getting my pension,” Cluck said. “My family has bills to pay.”

Crystal Lawrence, 39, of Ferguson, had returned to work at USDA in early December after undergoing surgery in October. Her last paycheck was only a partial one because she had been on leave, then the government shut down.

“My anxiety shot through the roof,” said Lawrence, a single mother of two teenagers. “I really follow politics very closely. I was hoping and praying this wasn’t going to come true, but ever since I knew it was coming I was trying to work extra hours to try to make ends meet.”

Lawrence upped her hours driving for Uber and Lyft, one of the many side jobs she’s worked to supplement her income since the shutdown in 2013. She’s driven 50 to 60 hours a week since the furlough, often working overnight until 6 a.m.

“If I have a good night that means the next day I could go buy groceries,” Lawrence said Wednesday. “But last night, for instance, I did about seven hours and only made about 45 dollars; it’s something, but it’s not enough to pay a bill.

“I’m clipping coupons a little bit more. I’ve had to go to the pantry to make sure we had enough food.”

Lawrence is thinking about leaving government service. Many of her family members were government employees or served in the military, and they’re telling her to keep her faith and do what she can to get by, she said.

“That’s about really all someone can say to you at this moment,” she said. “But we have to go through this (budget negotiations) every year.

“The wall has nothing to do with my day-to-day job, so why is the wall affecting me being able to work? Why is it interfering with my job assisting the American people?”

Elizabeth Weitzel’s husband doesn’t have the option to walk away from his job during the shutdown. He’s a 13-year member of the Coast Guard and under contract.

Her husband, Kyle, is working without pay, said Weitzel, 40, of Foristell, who stays at home to care for the couple’s 2-year-old son. Because he is still considered employed, he can’t apply for unemployment benefits. In addition to a paycheck, the couple receive housing assistance through the Coast Guard.

“When you think about missing a rent payment, that’s scary,” Weitzel said. “If we don’t get paid again next week, things are going to get a little tighter. If this drags out weeks or months like they’re saying it could, things are going to get ugly.”

Weitsel is glad her son isn’t old enough to understand what is happening, she said. She was able to convince him his favorite restaurant was closed when he asked to get lunch there.

“It’s not his fault, and there’s nothing he can do about it,” she said. “That’s the most unfortunate thing about this situation, is all the people caught in the crossfire. People like my son who don’t have a choice or say. They’re just at the mercy of the powers that be.”

Rick Willenberg filed for unemployment this week for the first time in his life while looking for temporary work while he is on furlough from his USDA job. His wife has a job, but the couple are coming up against mortgage payments, utility bills, car payments, and paying for day care for their 20-month-old daughter. Unemployment assistance could take weeks, so Willenberg is looking for another job.

“I was kind of blindsided,” Willenberg, 31, of St. Peters, said of the shutdown. “Had I known, I would’ve done the holidays different. I would’ve been more cautious in budgeting and spending for Christmas.”

Willenberg, who is pursuing a master’s degree in public policy administration at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, had always wanted to work in civil service. But now he’s considering leaving his government job of four years, where he helps low-income rural families obtain and pay for home loans.

“Even if I have to leave this job, I would hope to come back to government service,” he said. “But my family comes first.”

Were it not for the shutdown, $356 would be taken out of Erick Castellanos’ bank account on Jan. 21 to make one of the many automatic bill payments he has set up.

Castellanos, 47, of Florissant, said he liked to pay his bills early. He’s been doing freelance graphic design work since he was furloughed from his job with the USDA. His parents and extended family have been helping him and his stay-at-home wife and daughter, 15, make ends meet, but he recently got a letter ordering him to report to work Tuesday without pay, he said.

“I had some friends working at different places to get by,” said Castellanos, chief steward for the local chapter of the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents more than 700,000 federal workers nationwide and abroad. “Now they’re going to have to stop that work and go back to their jobs but not get paid. So, the government is forcing them not to make money for their families.”

The union has been hosting rallies in downtown St. Louis to demand an end to the shutdown, which doesn’t affect just federal employees, Castellanos said.

“We serve the American public,” said Castellanos, who also helps low-income families in rural areas obtain home loans. “We service the rural community. But we’re not there right now.”

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Reporter covering breaking news and crime by night. Born in Algeria but grew up in St. Louis. Previously reported for The Associated Press in Jackson, Mississippi and at the Wichita Eagle in Wichita, Kansas.

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