Washington – Less than two weeks into the federal government shutdown, Christopher Campbell, a cook supervisor at the federal prison in Waseca, Minn., has put off paying bills to stock up on groceries for his family of five.
In Mankato, Social Security employee Elizabeth Ratcliff and her husband have halted their home remodeling project in favor of shoring up their savings.
Colin Barrett, a claims examiner in the Veterans Benefits Administration's St. Paul office, has a busted oven that won't be repaired until he knows when future paychecks will arrive.
Hundreds of thousands of federal employees have been furloughed as part of the government shutdown that has gripped the nation for 10 days.
But hundreds of thousands more, like Campbell, Ratcliff and Barrett in Minnesota, continue to dutifully clock in and perform their duties.
They just aren't getting paid.
"People in Washington keep talking about who's winning the shutdown," Campbell said. "I'm not sure if anybody is winning, but I work with a lot of people who are losing."
The two-week paychecks for many civilian employees on Friday will reflect only the work they did in the last week of September, before the shutdown began, according to the Office of Management and Budget. Not all workers get paid on the same day, but Friday is payday for many of them. That will mean paychecks that are about 40 percent smaller than they should be.
Campbell, who also serves as president of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 801, supports a wife, daughter and two grandchildren on his federal paycheck.
Now, he said, many of his members must work and also worry about keeping food on the table, gas in their tanks and staying current on major expenses.
Morale 'at absolute rock bottom'
"The morale of staff is at absolute rock bottom," Campbell said. "It feels like we're being hit doubly hard."
For most government workers, the shutdown should not lead to permanent loss of income.
The U.S. House approved legislation last weekend to eventually pay furloughed employees for missed days of work, and the U.S. Senate could soon follow suit. By law, the government is obligated to eventually reimburse employees like Campbell for all non-pay workdays during the shutdown.
But until those reimbursement checks arrive, families of federally employed workers are pinching more than pennies.
"I'm hoping for the best but doing my best to prepare for the worst," said Ratcliff, the Mankato federal employee.
The Ratcliffs figure their savings can keep them going about a month, at most. Beyond that, cable, cellphones and possibly even one of the family vehicles would have to be cut out of the budget to make ends meet. They've already warned their three school-age children that money may be tight for awhile.
"We have to see how long it goes and how bad it gets," said Ratcliff, 42.
The shutdown began over House Republicans' refusal to maintain existing spending levels past Oct. 1, the end of the government's fiscal year, unless Democrats and the White House agreed to a one-year delay of President Obama's signature health care reform. Republicans continue to push for some kind of concession, but Obama has said there will be no negotiations until Republicans end the shutdown.
'A knockout punch'
Over the weekend, the Defense Department reinterpreted its rules on essential workers to include most of its furloughed civilians, meaning 350,000 of the original 800,000 federal workers sent home without pay were being called back to work.
Dustin Hawkins, a Chanhassen electrician with the 934th Airlift Wing of the U.S. Air Force Reserve, was among those called back. Hawkins already had been furloughed six days this year because of budget cuts related to the sequester. Now he's back on the job, but still without a paycheck.
Fresh off the sequester furloughs, the lack of pay during the shutdown is like a "knockout punch" to the financially strapped, Hawkins said.
The standoff has put extra pressure on Barrett, the St. Paul VA claims examiner.
The agency furloughed thousands more workers and closed regional offices in more than 50 cities as the shutdown shifted into its second week.
The actions won't immediately affect existing benefits claims or new claims. But the agency warns veterans that benefits checks and disability compensation scheduled to go out in early November could be delayed if the shutdown isn't resolved. With at least half of the office staff gone, things are not running smoothly, Barrett said.
The 28-year-old has a two-income household and no children, but he's still cutting back on spending. With his oven on the fritz, he says he'll be microwaving meals until the shutdown is over.
"You hear certain congresspeople saying federal employees are taking a paid vacation … but they're not in our shoes," Barrett said. "It's pretty tough when they make those kinds of statements, particularly when there are a lot of us that are actually working."
Corey Mitchell is a correspondent in the Star Tribune Washington Bureau. Twitter: @C_C_Mitchell