POLITICS
10/11/2013 07:46 pm ET

Furloughed Workers, Military Vets Facing Creditors, Draining 401Ks

AP

WASHINGTON -- Julio Fierros' last day of active duty in the Marines was Sept. 14. He had served for more than decade, including five deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, and the young father of four was looking forward to returning to the civilian world. He’d counted on the money from his final paycheck and his severance pay to give him a cushion, to “get the wheels going” as he puts it.

Instead, the government shutdown froze his pay. Fierros, 34, ended up on foot in his Oceanside, Calif., neighborhood, knocking on doors looking for odd jobs. He's replaced his military uniform with a pair of jeans and a plain T-shirt, work gloves and safety goggles. He used to be a squad leader. Now, he's hoping neighbors will let him walk their dogs for cash.

Mostly, his neighbors don't answer his knock. The retired Marines down the block at least admired his effort. But few took Fierros up on his jack-of-all-trades pitch. He made $20 washing a car. He made another $20 cutting grass. Thirty bucks counts as his biggest windfall for house-cleaning (vacuuming, window washing, dusting a ceiling fan). His two weeks of grunt assignments won’t cover more than milk, bread and eggs.

A friend has let him tag along on his swimming pool business clearing filters, Fierros says. It hasn’t been enough. Creditors have already started hounding him for a car payment. “I’ve been reported already by people I couldn’t pay," he says. "I told them I’m going to pay you in full. I’m like,'Look, [the Marines] haven’t paid me.'” He’s applying for food stamps.

As the government inches closer to default, furloughed government workers and unpaid military vets like Fierros are counting down toward their own personal default. Unless the shutdown is resolved, hundreds of thousands of furloughed workers will face mortgage payments, rent checks and grocery bills without an income, putting their credit in jeopardy.

Across the country, thousands of furloughed workers have already filed for unemployment. Six days after the shutdown began, more than 26,000 workers from D.C. and Maryland had filed. J. David Cox, national president of the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents 670,000 federal and D.C. government workers, said the worries about credit problems are big among his members -– so big that some federal agencies have given letters to furloughed workers that they can send to banks and bill collectors.

Cox said workers are feeling “absolute pain.“ “Most of our members make between $30,000 and $50,000 a year,” he said. “Their take-home pay averages $500 a week. Let's be real -- they don't have a lot of money saved. They are living paycheck to paycheck.”

The Department of Homeland Security has distributed a letter to its employees. “We appreciate your organization's understanding and flexibility toward DHS employees until this situation is resolved,” the department wrote.

On Friday afternoon, Carol Galante, Federal Housing Administration commissioner released a statement encouraging lenders to not penalize furloughed workers if they are late with payments. The FHA, she wrote, is “calling on all approved mortgagees and lenders to be sensitive to the financial hardships faced by borrowers as a result of the shutdown. This includes all borrowers subject to furlough, layoff, or a reduction income related to the shutdown.”

Galante added that FHA “strongly encourages all approved mortgagees and lenders to waive late fees for affected borrowers and to suspend credit reporting on borrowers nationwide who have been affected by the shutdown.”

Fierros' wife, Johanna, 29, recently took a job as a teacher's aide. But she hasn't worked long enough to receive her first paycheck. "Emotionally, it's really draining," she says. "You just feel at the mercy of what's going on. Just so helpless."

Fierros is taking medication for PTSD and depression. Since the shutdown, he's had moments of feeling worthless. “There were days where I laid in bed,” he says, just doubting himself. “I just felt like I was used.”

While Fierros fights depression and creditors, Joe Bacon, 57, still must clock in at the Social Security Administration in Los Angeles without getting paid for his work. He tells Huff Post that he’s already had to cancel his cable, his Netflix subscription, and his landline phone. “I’m trying to cut as much as I can,” he says.

Bacon says he is considering a personal loan from a bank. He's worked for the Social Security Administration for more than 30 years.

Eric Raits, a 70-year-old tour guide in Shark Valley, inside Everglades National Park, tells HuffPost he’s begun to liquidate his 401K. He's worried about paying his mortgage.

Debbie Donaldson, 52, a furloughed Department of Interior worker who lives in Littleton, Colo., is hoping it doesn’t snow.

On Monday, while at Costco, Donaldson had to tell her daughter that there’s just no money right now for winter boots. “I told her, ‘You want to eat or you want boots?” she says. She hated to have to say those words.

It’s all building up, so Donaldson can’t sleep more than an hour before waking up. She has started selling custom jewelry out of her home. In the past two weeks, she’s made about $150. If she doesn’t get back to work, she won't be able to afford to pay her mortgage or her car loan.

Donaldson says she recently called her mortgage company to see if she can work something out, just in case. “They said, ‘Well, you have to be late before we can work anything out with you,’” she says. “It’s frustrating. I’ve never missed a payment on my mortgage.”

The panic hit Carla Braswell, a furloughed archivist technician with the Nixon Presidential Library and Museum in Yorba Linda, Calif., as soon as she and her colleagues began walking to their cars the day the shutdown began.

“There was nothing we could do,” Braswell, 47, explains. “No one was in the mood to go get coffee or get lunch. Immediately the fear of not having money set in, not wanting to spend any money, not wanting to [use] any gas.”

Braswell got into her ’99 Saab and drove an hour to her one-bedroom apartment in Pasadena. She had only started renting the place three weeks ago and hadn’t taken time off to unpack. Boxes were still scattered everywhere, still doubling as furniture. Between the first month’s rent ($1,025) and the deposit, the archivist had no money left to afford bookcases (“Living’s expensive,” she says). Through the new apartment clutter, Braswell headed to the bedroom. “I just laid on my bed and I just thought: ‘What am I going to do now?'”

Braswell said she hopes she can make it through the shutdown without having to blast her credit rating. “My future credit rating is of great concern,” she says. “Do I want to get caught in the cycle, advance cash on my credit card which has a high interest rate. If I knew for a fact we would receive back pay … It’s the not knowing that really gets you. It’s the not knowing that’s paralyzing.”

It’s a feeling Jason Poor, 30, knows well.

Eight days into the shutdown, Poor says he feels like he’s already disappointed his 5-year-old daughter. On Wednesday, she was admitted to a hospital and diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. Poor lives about 400 miles away. Although he recently was allowed to return to work as an Air Reserve Technician at Travis Air Force Base in Northern California, he has not received a guarantee that he will be paid any time soon. The uncertainty of when he'll get paid, and the expense of the trip, prevented him from being able to see his daughter in the hospital.

“It’s hard to feel like I’m there for her,” Poor says. “I would love to just drop everything and run down and see her. If I had been paid like I was supposed to be, I would be down there right now, next to her.”

The stress brought Poor to tears.

Poor could only talk to his daughter on the phone: “I told her, ‘Don’t worry.’”

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