Steve Denzine planned for the government shutdown. He refinanced his home and canceled his family’s annual Christmas vacation to an indoor water park, hoping it might provide enough of a financial cushion to endure a few weeks without pay.
Twenty-eight days later, the longest shutdown in U.S. history drags on.
Now the Air Force veteran and Sandstone prison employee is considering substitute teaching in his time off to help pay for day care.
Some of his colleagues are driving for Uber. Others are calling their creditors, begging for lenience.
“I’m tired of being a pawn for politicians,” said Denzine, a drug treatment specialist. “It’s become the norm for federal workers to worry about this.”
Among the 5,500 Minnesotans affected are hundreds of Federal Bureau of Prisons employees who missed their first paycheck Friday. Union leaders say the families are being forced to hastily cut costs and, in some cases, choose between paying for groceries or medications. If the deadlock continues, the shutdown could drive out entry-level officers, many of whom make less than $20 an hour.
Attrition at the federal penitentiaries in Sandstone, Rochester, Duluth and Waseca could be dangerous, since understaffing has already prompted mandatory overtime — an additional stressor for officers often required to pull double shifts on no notice.
“People can only work so many hours,” said Sandy Parr, local union president at the Rochester prison who recently clocked an 18-hour shift. “To be tired around inmates is not a good combination. That’s when people make mistakes.”
In labor meetings last week, rank-and-file employees told their leaders that they were concerned about missed mortgage payments and the ability to afford gas to get to work. Those struggling to pay for child care lamented that they must weigh whether to risk disciplinary action for staying home to babysit.
Union heads could do little more than listen. And advise workers to call their representatives in Congress.
Morale suffered another blow when corrections staffers were informed that prisoners are still entitled to their salaries. (The funds come from separate pots.) Programming must operate as normal — all while officers work for free.
For some, the only incentive to show up is the responsibility they feel to colleagues.
“We understand that if you don’t come to work, you don’t hurt Congress. You don’t hurt the president,” said Mike Weber, who heads the Sandstone union. “You hurt the guy who’s counting on you to relieve him so he can go home to see his family.”
Longtime employees who have invested a decade or more into their pensions say they have no choice but to ride out the shutdown. But workers with less than five years in are more likely to jump ship, Weber said. Several warned him that they’re applying for other jobs. “If they get it, they’re gone,” he said.
Officer Mark Sanford of Hinckley earns the sole paycheck for his family of five, so he felt compelled to seek out a second income. On his days off, Sanford makes the 3.5-hour round-trip commute to the Twin Cities to work construction so he can support his pregnant wife and three children.
Once his wife delivers later this month, he’ll take paternity leave to help around the house — and likely be forced to borrow money from a bank.
“There’s this idea that federal workers are lazy and make too much money,” he said. “We’re people who have wives, kids and families to provide for just like anybody else. I don’t think there’s anything worth getting in the way of providing for my family.”
With the shutdown now in its fourth week, many federal workers are losing hope that it will end before February.
On Monday, President Donald Trump dug in by rejecting a short-term legislative fix to temporarily reopen the government, declaring he would “never, ever back down” from his quest to fund a $5.7 billion border wall.
As the days tick past, Weber is increasingly concerned about the unwillingness to compromise on both sides. He’s taken phone calls from Democratic Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith and is expected to host Rep. Pete Stauber, a Republican from northern Minnesota, for a tour next week.
“Somebody’s gotta give,” said Weber, who’s so desperate to accommodate struggling workers that he’s asked for permission to put up cots in the gym. Roughly one-third of the prison’s 215-person staff commutes from at least an hour away, he said, and some are approaching the point where they can’t afford to drive home.
Once the government stopped providing, communities across the state stepped in to care for their own.
In Rochester, the Great Harvest Bread Co. filled the “Government Shutdown Shelf” with day-old bread for those who need it. Signs instruct people strapped for cash to help themselves to a free loaf.
Good Samaritans held a food drive last Saturday to help feed 420 Federal Medical Center employees and their families. Donors filled 10 trucks with nonperishable food, toiletries and diapers.
“When there’s an ask, people show up,” said organizer Danielle Teal, founder of Caring Acts of Kindness Everywhere (CAKE). The volunteer group paired up with Caitlin Matera, whose husband, Zach Gore, is a corrections officer. She wanted to help families like hers who are feeling the financial squeeze.
“He’s been working for the government in some form since he was 17,” Matera said of Gore, an injured Army veteran. “So it’s a big gut punch to have this happen to him. They don’t have an easy job, and this doesn’t make it any easier.”
In Sandstone, a pizza joint has started offering free one-topping pies to federal employees who show their ID at checkout. And the locally owned bank threw a lifeline to federal workers in the form of low-interest personal loans.
At some point, Denzine worries he’ll have to take advantage. But for now, he’s rescheduled his family’s Christmas vacation for June, assuming the shutdown will be long past by then.
On Wednesday, Denzine gathered the family around the table for a meal of grilled cheese and tomato soup.
Stella, 6, and Robbie, 3, know they won’t be eating out for a while. But Stella has a simple request for a celebration once the shutdown ends: Go to McDonald’s.
“I think we can make that happen,” Denzine said, chuckling.