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The Government Shutdown Has Put 'Life On Hold' For These Kansas City Families

Andrea Tudhope
KCUR 89.3
Hundreds of federal workers rallied against the government shutdown a few weeks ago in front of the IRS building near downtown. As the shutdown continues, many of those employees, along with an even larger number of contracted workers, remain without pay.

New data from the Washington Post suggests the Kansas City area is missing out on $10 million a week from government contracts as the shutdown stretches on. That’s in addition to the thousands of federal workers not getting paid. Those missed paychecks for contractors and employees alike have placed a heavy burden on both budgets and families.

Marvin Lewis has worked for the IRS in Kansas City, Missouri, for 20 years. It’s definitely not his first shutdown, but it may be the hardest.

"Just trying to explain to my youngest kids why I’m not going to work ... It’s been tough," he said.

Lewis is one of the thousands of government workers in the Kansas City area who have now missed their second paycheck. Many of those are on the job without pay while others are furloughed, but either way, government workers will eventually get back pay.

Government contractors, like Tiffany Stanphill of Oak Grove, Missouri, will not.

Stanphill is a paralegal for CACI International, and her assignment is to the U.S. Commodities Futures Trading Commission.

"I feel like my life is on hold," she said. "I feel like I'm just sitting still in the middle of a world that's not really moving either. It's the strangest feeling I've ever had, and I don't know what direction is right and which direction is wrong."

Every day Stanphill wakes up to a daunting email.

"Until further notice, please do not report to work at the CFTC office. We will contact you as soon as we have additional information. CACI staff who are in the office today are to stop work immediately, secure their workspace and leave the CFTC facility."

It's her daily reminder to get online, open her time card and enter her hours: 0.0.

Credit Courtesy of Tiffany Stanphill
Tiffany Stanphill, center, with her five children. Stanphill is a government contractor in Kansas City. She said every day has been a struggle since the government shut down.

Stanphill took the job just months before the shutdown began. It was a pay increase, and she needed the money. She’s raising five children by herself. After her ex-husband injured his back, she lost child support. Soon after that, she got an eviction notice. 

She thought she was getting things in order when she took the job contracting for the government. She had no idea what was in store for her.

"I didn't have time to get back on my feet at all," she said. "I feel like I took one step forward only to take 10 steps back."

She took out a personal loan to keep the family's townhouse, canceled their cable and internet and stopped buying her normal groceries — meals now are usually cold sandwiches. Even under the best circumstances, supporting five kids is a challenge. Ultimately, she stopped paying bills altogether.

"At this point, I feel compelled to hold onto the money that I have and deal with things as they start exploding," she said. "I don't know when this is going to end and I may not be able to feed my children if I do that because once I deplete that money it's gone."

Unlike federal employees, contractors have the freedom to find other work. Stanphill has applied for more than 20 jobs over the past month, but she's not holding her breath.

"I'm sure they're not exactly jumping on the train to hire us. They're waiting for us to return," she said.

But as it is, she said she feels bound to her current employer. To make up for the furlough, the company offered everyone 40 hours of vacation time. She felt she had to take it, to provide for her family. But now, she’s stuck working there another eight months to make that up. If she leaves for another job, she’ll have to pay it back to the company out of pocket.

In many ways, Stanphill said she feels just as trapped as federal workers.

Knikkia Jefferson is a clerk for the IRS in Kansas City. She said without being able to get a second job, she feels helpless. Like Stanphill, Jefferson is also a single mom and has struggled to make ends meet for herself and her three young children since the shutdown began.

Groups around Kansas City have offered everything from free symphony tickets to free meals at local restaurants, but Jefferson said she can barely afford to leave the house. She lives in an apartment subsidized by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. With HUD shut down, she figured her apartment manager would understand that she simply couldn’t pay rent. That hasn’t been the case.

"She don’t care how I get it, I have to come up with something," she said.

She just got what’s likely to be her last SNAP benefits to buy food. She said she doesn’t have savings to tap into — she doesn’t even have a bank account. Given that her mother and two of her aunts also work for the government, she doesn't have a social safety net to fall back on.

Jefferson actually left a job at a payday lender in Raytown last year to work for the IRS. She thought it was the smart thing to do for her family. Now, she said, she wishes she hadn't.

"Sometimes I regret even working for the government," Jefferson said.

She’s not alone.

Even as the Senate is set to vote Thursday on competing bills to end the shutdown, federal employees and contractors in Kansas City are growing increasingly anxious. Many, like Jefferson, who previously felt honored to work for the government, said they are now losing hope in it.

Andrea Tudhope is a reporter for KCUR 89.3. Email her at andreat@kcur.org, and follow her on Twitter @andreatudhope.

Andrea Tudhope is an award-winning multimedia journalist based in Kansas City, Missouri. She is currently coordinating producer for America Amplified, a national public media community engagement initiative funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. 
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