PHILADELPHIA — As the government's partial shutdown pushed toward a third week, hundreds of thousands of federal workers are feeling the financial pinch.
They're calling mortgage companies, hoping for a break, and weighing the risks of letting other bills go unpaid. They're reheating leftovers and turning down the thermostat to save a few bucks. They're looking into applying for loans or unemployment insurance.
Their worries go beyond household budgets. Some are stressed about the unfinished work piling up in their absence while President Donald Trump and Congress clash over a plan for reopening the government. For many furloughed federal employees, the worst part is the uncertainty over how long the shutdown will last. A look at some of their worries:
This is Nora Brooks' favorite time of the year. Not because of the holidays, but because of her job. The 61-year-old Philadelphia native is a customer service representative for the Internal Revenue Service. She loves helping taxpayers navigate the IRS, including getting their refunds.
"I get to be the person that explains to you what you have to do to make it better," Brooks said.
At 11:30 p.m. Dec. 21, Brooks entered into the system one last concern from a taxpayer whose refund had been held up. "I didn't want the shutdown to further delay this taxpayer I made a commitment to," she said.
For the past 13 days, she's been furloughed, worrying about whether she'll need to seek a second job. The agency requires pre-approval to avoid conflicts of interest, but there's no one in the office to sign off.
She stayed up until 3 a.m. Wednesday figuring out which bills needed to be paid and which could wait. The agency gave employees a letter explaining the furlough to creditors, but "it means absolutely nothing to them," she said.
So Brooks' recent purchases sit in bags, receipts on top, in case she needs money for the electric bill. The thermostat is turned down; she dons a hoodie inside. She spent her health savings account instead of letting it carry over because the reimbursement could pay bills.
"You try not to freak out, but I don't have any control over what's going to happen next month. I'm second guessing. Should I have had a whole nest egg? Well, no, my pay doesn't allow for that," she said.
RAIDING THE FREEZER
Rebecca Maclean, a housing program specialist for the Department of Housing and Urban Development in Pittsburgh, received her last pre-shutdown paycheck over the weekend. She and her husband used it to make their monthly mortgage payment and cover some Christmas expenses for their three children.
Maclean, 41, said her family is trying to cut back on expenses. They stayed home for a movie night instead of going to a theater. Instead of takeout dinners, they eat leftovers and call it the "Freezer Baking Challenge."
The family's financial outlook isn't dire yet — her husband, Dan Thompson, owns a knife-making business and works as an elected constable. But they recently sat down to prioritize which bills must be paid and which can be late without dinging their credit.
"We're fine for now," she said. "Missing two paychecks in January might be a little hairy."
Maclean, a local shop steward for the American Federation of Government Employees union, said she's frustrated that federal employees are being used "as a bargaining chip."