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Residents, business owners share struggles during shutdown

By KATIE FITZPATRICK, SARA NEWMAN and AMANDA SCOTT

Staff writers

After working for the Department of Homeland Security for about 10 years, Jennifer Malenab said she is considering a career change due to the way government employees have been treated these last two weeks.

“More than anything, I feel disappointed,” the Chesapeake Beach resident said. “I’ve always been so proud to be a federal employee, especially for DHS … but I have never felt so let down by anything or any person in my life. I really feel like the government failed me.”

Malenab is one of many government employees living in Calvert County who were furloughed once Congress failed to agree on a budget and the federal government shut down last week.

Malenab has two daughters currently in private school and is pregnant with her third child, and the lack of income has left her scrambling to pay her bills, she said.

“I’m one of the many families that bought a house when the market was good and now we’re underwater … and we’re living paycheck to paycheck even though I make good money, and this is a breaking point for us,” she said.

From non-government workers, Malenab said she is constantly told not to worry because she will get paid eventually.

“Even if I do get paid, whenever it happens, it didn’t help me pay my bills at this time, to pay my daughter’s tuition, to buy gas,” she said. “I can never be made whole ­­— emotionally, financially — there’s nothing they can ever do … to make me the same as if this hadn’t happened.”

Malenab said people are wrong in their assumptions that government workers will automatically receive retroactive pay. She said the House voted to approve the bill, and the Senate has not as of press time, and the bill only gives agencies the ability to pay employees back; it doesn’t require it.

Malenab said the furlough is draining her savings account, and her plans to purchase a van “because we have three kids now” have been squashed.

“I just don’t think they realize [that] everyone is going to be tapping into every resource that they had to save some money … because we don’t know when we’re going to get paid again,” she said. “Any stability that people were starting to have again after the economic crisis, they’ve just knocked us completely down.”

North Beach resident Brian Greenwell, who has worked for the U.S. Census for about 11 years, said he has been occupying his time since he was furloughed last Tuesday with household chores, such as painting his living room and yard work.

“It’s just really frustrating, [because I] want to go back to work,” he said. “The good part about it is I’m getting things done around the house.”

Not receiving a paycheck from not being able to go to work is another source of frustration for Greenwell, but “luckily,” he said he and his wife “are smart to have saved our money, but that can only last for so long.” He said so far, the furlough has not affected him financially, but he is “dipping into” his savings to help pay his bills.

“We’re expecting to get one more check for about a week and a half of work, and where we go from there, I don’t know,” Greenwell said, adding that he has received help from some of his friends. “I know the House has passed a bill to pay us when we do go back [to work], but when will that happen? That’s the key thing — when will it happen?”

Greenwell said he is also feeling angry about the shutdown, as though government officials are “grown adults acting like kids.”

“They’re forgetting about what the nation is going through,” he said. “I guess they forgot who put them in office. ... We have to remember these folks that are not doing what they’re supposed to be doing and vote them out. When I was a kid, if I got in trouble, I got put in a corner. I wish I could put all the politicians in the corner.”

In Calvert, the local community knows there are many others like Malenab and Greenwell who have been furloughed for the past two weeks.

After handing out more than 2,000 pounds of food Monday during its first event, End Hunger in Calvert County is holding a second “Food for Furlough” event from 9:30 a.m. to noon Monday, Oct. 14, at Chesapeake Cares Food Pantry in Huntingtown, to help furloughed federal employees who may be struggling to put food on the table.

Director of Awareness Jacqueline Miller said End Hunger received an influx of emails from individuals and families in need of assistance once the government shut down.

“There was a special distribution [held] because of the response that we got,” she said.

Miller said about 2,700 pounds of food were distributed to 71 families during Monday’s event, which took place at the food pantry. She said End Hunger decided to hold a second “Food for Furlough” event because many families affected by the shutdown do not know the next time they will be paid.

“Talking to some of the families, even if they know that they are going to get paid eventually, they don’t know when it’s coming,” Miller said. “A lot of people in this county … they’re living paycheck to paycheck, so not getting their income is impacting them greatly. We want to be able to support them as long as the furlough is going on; we want to step in and fill that gap for them until they no longer are in need.”

Since not only government workers, but government contractors and gas station and restaurant owners in Washington, D.C., are feeling the effects of the government shutdown, Miller said presenting identification is not necessary to receive food during the event.

“They’re all feeling the effect of the furlough,” Miller said. “It’s not only just for the federal employees; it’s for anyone impacted.”

It’s for family “breadwinners” like Jennifer McDaniel, a North Beach resident who was furloughed from her position with the Department of Commerce at the Census Bureau. McDaniel said not receiving a paycheck has affected her ability to pay bills and buy food.

“I don’t have that fear of permanently losing my job, but there are others who rely on my income for their livelihoods, especially those in the service industry,” McDaniel said.

Those individuals, McDaniel added, do not have the luxury of knowing pay for this past week and a half will be reimbursed.

“It affects the entire community,” McDaniel added. “Where those [government] employees live, work and consume.”

A member of Chesapeake Church, McDaniel endorsed End Hunger in Calvert County for helping those furloughed employees whose delayed paychecks are affecting their ability to provide for themselves and their families.

But for some federal workers, the shutdown has provided needed time for mental regrouping.

Port Republic resident Dawn Keen, who has been furloughed since last Tuesday from her job with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, said she’s using her time to “get my sanity” and rest.

Keen said between driving to and from work for more than two hours, spending the day working and then coming home to take care of her 2-year-old daughter, her disabled mother and her stepfather, she’s “thankful” for the rest.

“The day-to-day has been very stressful, but it has given me time to just catch up,” Keen said.

She said, “I’m thankful to Congress for sending us home while they work it out” because of the anxiety it creates. When other people verbally attack government workers saying how well they have it, she said that just adds to the anxiety.

Through the whole experience, Keen said she’s continued to support local businesses.

“There are a lot of us who continue to shop and do things and support local businesses,” she said. During the week, she patronizes several businesses, whether it be retail or restaurants, while trying to maintain a semi-normal schedule during the shutdown — assuming she’s going to receive back-pay.

“A lot of us are relying on faith that we’re going to get back-pay,” she said.

Vicki Soto, a mother of two who works for the Environmental Protection Agency and recently moved to the county from Silver Spring, has been filling her furlough days with unpacking and settling into her new home. She said her family has not been able to explore the county like she would have preferred because the extra spending money is not there for activities like going out to eat.

Soto has also put a hault on renovating her new home. Now, she says, is not the best time for her to be without a paycheck because of the new move and impending mortgage payments. Come November, Soto said, her family will really feel the effects of the shutdown.

“November will be tough because I’ll have to dip into my savings account to pay my bills to overcome not receiving a paycheck,” Soto said.

Soto has looked into filing for unemployment and may do so depending on how long the furloughs last and whether she will be reimbursed for the shutdown.

“Government employees have been furloughed already this year,” Soto said. “[Combined] I think a whole month of not getting paid is scary. That’s a really big pay cut to not plan on. I’m lucky that I have savings to go to; I don’t know what people who don’t have savings will do.”

“It shakes the confidence of everybody,” said Dwayne Crawford, owner and manager of Family Auto Mercedes BMW specialist, in Owings.

“As a business owner, I try to stay politically neutral with the public,” Crawford added. “But it’s becoming harder to remain publicly neutral.”

Crawford said normally his family business fares well during difficult economic times because government employees are the “bread and butter” of his business, but this time he is seeing the effects trickle-down, from those who have canceled appointments to purchase vehicles, to those who are not putting miles on their cars from driving to work, delaying the need for maintenance Crawford’s business performs. He said he has recently hired new employees but is holding off on hiring for another position because the income is not there.

Crawford said lowered earnings are affecting his hiring ability and charitable contributions. He will continue to contribute 1 percent of his earnings to local causes, like he has since opening his commercial location in the county in 2003, “but 1 percent of less income is still less of a donation,” Crawford said.

In an effort to support those customers who have been with him since the beginning, Crawford said he has taken extra steps, extended credit and offered necessary services to furloughed individuals with the promise they will be reimbursed once the shutdown is over.

“We’re all in this together,” Crawford said.

Carolyn Hart, president and CEO of the Calvert County Chamber of Commerce, echoed Crawford’s sentiment.

“Our community needs to come together and support each other,” Hart said.

Hart said she has seen effects of the shutdown throughout the county, from real estate to hospitality to local shops, restaurants and hiring.

“So much of our community relies on the government,” Hart said. “Sixty percent of our community leaves the county to go to work, so that disposable income has been affected.”

For these struggling businesses, Hart said it is imperative to “think outside the box,” and collaborate with other business owners.

“Entrepreneurs are creative and they need to not be afraid of trying something new,” Hart said. “You cannot depend on things remaining the same, obviously. That’s the only way they are going to survive.”

Nick Garrett, owner of the Garrett Music Academy, agrees that the shutdown has greatly affected private businesses. Though furloughs have not impacted his business as much, Garrett said he has noticed a drop in music lessons.

“In the mid-90s, Congress was full of heavy hitters who knew how to use the shutdown to get what they wanted,” Garrett said. “I don’t have faith that Congress now knows what they’re doing.”

kfitzpatrick@somdnews.com

snewman@somdnews.com

ascott@somdnews.com