Federal government worker: ‘Christmas is going to be sparse’

First of a series of first-person accounts relating to news events of 2013.

Nicolette Shegstad
Courtesy of Nicolette ShegstadNicolette Shegstad

WASHINGTON — Between sequestration and a 16-day government shutdown, 2013 was a particularly difficult year for federal government workers. Minnesota has a smaller share of government employees than other states, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t feel the effects of sequestration’s furloughs or the uncertainty that came with October’s shutdown. Nicolette Shegstad, the manager of base education and training programs for the 934 Airlift Wing, was stung by both of them:

Over the summer I was subjected to six days of furloughs. We had to stay home, unpaid, for at least two days out of our normal 80-hour pay period, so my pay was cut by a little over $400 a week for three pay periods. Then, when the government shutdown happened in October, we were forced to go home for four days, and then we were called back after a week, under the Pay Our Military Act, and eventually we were retroactively paid for those days. But the stress that went along with that, not knowing if we were going to be paid and the strain financially on our households, morale was affected at work because of all the uncertainty.

[The shutdown] was a train wreck waiting to happen, because all the way up until the first of October, everybody was like, oh this isn’t going to happen, they’re not going to let this happen to us, it’s not going to happen, they’ll make a deal in the eleventh hour. And then the eleventh hour came and went and we came to work and were notified that we’d be sent home and got our shutdown notification letters. At that point it became real. As I was driving out of the gate to go home, it really hit me at that point that it happened.

[Sequestration], I’m still feeling the effects because I have a five-member household. My husband retired from the military and he’s been unemployed for about 14 months, so I’m the primary income in our household. So to go through those pay periods without my full check … I did a TSP [a retirement plan for federal workers] withdrawal, which is money I had set aside for my retirement. I kind of dipped into that to try and help defray or cover the cost of bills, or I worked with my creditors to maybe delay payment dates and things like that to sort of lessen the burden.

In my job, we deal with sending military members to school or to training. In my position, I’ve seen training or courses that have been canceled or postponed, and I think a lot of that is in the possibility that there might not be funding available for these courses.

Minnesota Moments 2013 It is horribly frustrating to watch because it feels like we’re just numbers and they’re not seeing us as people with meaningful jobs that affect the defense of our country, and we’re just pawns. We come out here, we work everyday, we didn’t ask to be put into this political mess. We didn’t create it, we didn’t mismanage the budget, but we’re the ones being affected and taking the brunt of what’s going on up on the Hill.

Christmas is going to be sparse this year. Mine and my husband’s, our older kids, they understand more, but I don’t know how to explain to a 9-year-old that Santa Claus might not come or there might be less things for us to do this year. So we’ll focus more on volunteering and other things to bring in the holidays because we just can’t afford to do all the other things we used to do.

Devin Henry can be reached at dhenry@minnpost.com. Follow him on Twitter: @dhenry.

Comments (13)

  1. Submitted by jody rooney on 12/24/2013 - 05:25 pm.

    Thank you for the reminder that the Federal Government is

    really a group of people who have the same needs everyone else has.

    The folks I worked with didn’t go there to have an easy job just like Ms. Shegstad and her husband they went because they wanted to provide a service to members of the public. In their case to help defend the country.

    When I went to work for the same employer as the Henry’s DOD it was the baby boom era when they only hired engineers with 4.0’s and generally with military service often in Vietnam. These were clearly folks that could have made more money elsewhere.

    It’s time the country stopped treating public employees like so much dirt and respected their commitment to serve.

  2. Submitted by Tom Anderson on 12/24/2013 - 05:38 pm.

    Ouch

    2 days out of 80 hours is 1 day out of 40 hours. $400.00 for one day is $2000.00 a week which is $50.00 an hour.
    Shutdown pay was retroactively paid so no monetary loss there. Leaving (retiring) without a job lined up first might not be a good move in hindsight, but there is a pension. Retiring without enough money to cover a few weeks of short pay might also be considered a poor move.

    All that said, I agree 100% that the people most affected by the shutdown did absolutely nothing to deserve it and any pain (financial or otherwise) that they have suffered was completely unnecessary. Treating our military personnel this shabbily is also disgusting. I also wonder about our very low State unemployment rate when so many people can’t seem to find a job, especially qualified people.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 12/26/2013 - 12:10 pm.

      No monetary loss

      That is true on paper, and it’s true if you consider the year as a whole. It’s a little different at the time it’s all happening when the mortgage company and the grocery store want their money now.

  3. Submitted by jody rooney on 12/26/2013 - 12:14 am.

    FYI Tom depending on your rank

    you really don’t get much choice in retiring it is ” up or out”. To be “out” in a bad job market doesn’t help much.

    • Submitted by Tom Anderson on 12/26/2013 - 07:09 pm.

      Thanks for the info

      But there is a choice correct? Move up to a higher ranking position (and I assume pay) or retire? I talked to a (career) serviceman a little over a year ago and he explained that the military encouraged moving around to different positions so that more people were capable of doing more jobs and brought new ideas into each job that they moved into. While you lose the experience at a given position, it does make for a more versatile whole.

      • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 12/27/2013 - 12:06 pm.

        Choice

        At a certain point, there is no choice to move up into a higher rank, and where that point is depends on each servicemember’s individual situation. My uncle retired as a major after 20 years in the Marine Corps. He was not forced to retire, but he said he knew he wasn’t going any further than that.

  4. Submitted by Frank Phelan on 12/26/2013 - 10:07 am.

    Nothing Special

    Last year the Minneapolis VA had two openings for my occupation. I looked into the pay and benefits, and found them both unimpressive. Given my household size, if I had perused and taken the job my kids may have qualified for reduced price lunch at school.

    Most government jobs pay less than comparable private sector jobs. Historically the difference was made up by better pension benefits and steady work. The steady work part is now out the window. And pensions? Thirty years ago someone might say, “You’ve got a pension? How do I get one?” Today it’s become, “You’ve got a pension? I lost mine so you should lose yours, too.”

    State and local governments have partnered with private employers in lowering the standard of living for the late, great American middle class.

  5. Submitted by Randall Stevens on 12/26/2013 - 04:20 pm.

    How terrible is this woman at managing her finances?

    Sounds like she was making about $8000 per month before the furloughs, and then lowly rate of $6400 per month (just for 3 pay periods), which she was then reimbursed for (even though she did no work to earn it). If you are making $100,000 per year and temporarily losing out on $2400 over 6 weeks puts you in dire financial straights, you are living extremely irresponsibly. What is she spending all this money on? Does she have any emergency fund whatsoever? This woman and her husband must be driving 50,000 cars or living in a $500,000 house.

    These people are not victims. They are making much, much, more than the average American, living off the government teat, and they just got a free vacation this summer. Many Americans probably don’t get much more than 6 vacation days all year.

    • Submitted by Joe Musich on 12/26/2013 - 10:11 pm.

      unbeliveably …

      heartless ! As the other writer said, “Thirty years ago someone might say, “You’ve got a pension? How do I get one?” Today it’s become, “You’ve got a pension? I lost mine so you should lose yours, too.” Your math is also lousy!

      • Submitted by Richard Callahan on 12/27/2013 - 04:55 pm.

        No, it’s not heartless

        Private sector workers have been taking a hit for ten years with massive lay-offs, salary reductions, elimination of benefits, etc. Public sector workers have been mostly insulated from this and from my experience don’t have a clue as to how bad the private sector world has been.

        • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 12/29/2013 - 02:59 pm.

          There they go again!

          Yes, it’s heartless, and not a little mean-spirited. What else do you call spite? Or revenge-based envy?

          Perhaps private sector workers would be better served by asking why they have been hit with “massive lay-offs, salary reductions, elimination of benefits, etc.” They could start by realizing it’s been going on for longer than ten years, but it’s been part of the plan since it was morning in America in the 80s. They might wonder why they continue to vote against their economic interests in favor of politicians who get votes by pushing the right buttons about gay rights or gun control.

  6. Submitted by Warren Blake on 12/28/2013 - 07:47 pm.

    N/A

    withdrawn…

  7. Submitted by rolf westgard on 12/31/2013 - 03:53 am.

    finance lessons needed for this woman

    This persons pay, and especially medical and pension benefits, are better than the average in private industry. And the retired husband presumably draws a pension.

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