During the government shutdown which began on December 22, 2018 and lasted for thirty-five days, federal government workers who were furloughed or worked without receiving a paycheck had to endure numerous difficulties. Among the hardships experienced by the 15,000 federal government workers living or working on Long Island was not being able to make a mortgage or rent payment, incurring late charges on their utility bills or personal loans, and not being able to put food on their table.
During the extensive media coverage of the shutdown there were a few comments made that, as the CEO of our regional food bank I felt were insensitive to the 800,000 individuals impacted by the event who were also struggling to feed their families during the longest government shutdown in US history. Some wondered why government employees not receiving a paycheck would turn to a food bank instead of applying for a bank loan to purchase groceries. Others believed that the pain being felt by furloughed workers was a temporary situation, and that in the long run government workers would realize that the shutdown would benefit our great nation. Comments like these were thankfully very few while, most of the media realistically reported on the impact of the shutdown on peoples’ lives, especially on Long Island.
The majority of the 174 government workers from the Department of Homeland Security, Internal Revenue Service, Federal Aviation Administration, U.S. Coast Guard, and Transportation Security Administration that received assistance from Long Island Cares-The Harry Chapin Regional Food Bank during the 35-day shutdown live paycheck to paycheck. The average salary of a TSA agent is $35,000 annually, and while the government remained closed these workers and their families were struggling to pay their bills and to feed their families. As all Long Islanders know, living in our region is costly. During the shutdown, the government workers we assisted experienced needless hardship trying to pay for their children’s college tuition, elective medical and dental procedures, and putting needed food on their tables. In addition to the economic stress brought about by the shutdown, many of these workers also experiencing emotional distress by not knowing when they could expect to be paid for work performed, or when they would return to work at all.
Going to food pantry and asking for help is not easy for anyone to do. There is a degree of embarrassment and shame that sadly exists for people in need. When you know that you earn a living from working and you’re being denied your paycheck, seeking assistance becomes even more difficult. This is what some of the government employees we assisted at the regional food bank’s community in Freeport, Lindenhurst and Huntington Station were experiencing. At a time when major corporations, utility companies like PSEGLI and National Grid, colleges and elected officials on Long Island were collaborating to waive some fees, provided donations of food and gift cards, and doing what they could to support government workers during the shutdown, the last thing they needed was to be the subject of commentary for simply asking for help in trying to feed their families.
Many organizations across the country supported federal government employees during the shutdown. I’m particularly proud of the work that Feeding America and its 200 food bank members were able to provide including, raising 3 million to provide grants to food banks in anticipation of potential ongoing needs and a possible lag within the SNAP program while government departments and programs return to full operations. We need to do better as a nation to understand that many Americans including our neighbors on Long Island might be one paycheck away from needing the support of a food bank.
Originally published in the HIA-LI Reporter, March 2019