Politics & Government

Shutdown ends not a moment too soon for struggling SC families caught without pay

The federal shutdown could not end soon enough for Tony Reed.

A corrections officer at the federal prison in Williamsburg County, Reed picked up groceries this week from a food bank for federal employees in Florence. It was only the latest way his family has tried to stretch money during the 35-day shutdown.

“I had to call and get my mortgage payment deferred,” Reed said. “Car payments, same thing. Cellphone, same thing.”

On Friday, Reed and some 800,000 federal employees got some relief, at least temporarily. President Donald Trump announced he would sign a bill to end the partial federal government shutdown for three weeks, sending federal employees back to work until Feb. 15.

Federal workers, who missed their second paycheck in a month on Friday, will receive back pay for the 35 days that the shutdown lasted.

But even after that news broke, many federal employees in South Carolina worried they would end up in the same place in three weeks, when the temporary funding deal expires.

“I’ll have to go back and rally again,” said Tangela Graves, a counselor at the Williamsburg prison who protested Friday outside Columbia Metropolitan Airport in support of Transportation Safety Administration agents, who also worked without pay through the shutdown.

“This has been a long 35 days,” Graves said. “I never thought as a federal employee, I would have to go through this.”

S.C. politicians on both sides Friday praised the deal.

“Today the American people’s and federal workers’ prayers are answered. I am pleased an agreement has been reached that will reopen the government,” said U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-Columbia. “I am very hopeful that Congress will use the time provided by this plan to find common ground on a path forward.”

U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-Seneca, expressed optimism that Congress can find a solution on Trump’s proposed border wall before funding expires again.

“I hope Congress, in a bipartisan fashion, will work with the president and take advantage of this moment,” Graham said. “This is the last, best chance to take a major step toward fixing broken borders and a broken immigration system.”

While politicians in Washington struggled to get the government reopened, the families of federal employees struggled to make ends meet.

“We have single mothers, people just starting off, who I know are living paycheck to paycheck,” said Talmadge Coleman, a union official representing workers at the federal prison in Edgefield. “We shouldn’t have to go through this, especially in law enforcement.”

Harvest Hope Food Bank hosted six separate events to distribute food to federal workers over the course of the shutdown, handing out 30,362 pounds of food to 525 people. The cost of all the food totaled $52,500, said Harvest Hope spokeswoman Taylor Davids.

The shutdown hit state government too.

As of Thursday, 350 federal employees have requested unemployment benefits in South Carolina, according to the state Department of Employment and Workforce. Depending on their work experience, those claims could average a total of $90,000 a week, up to a maximum of $114,000.

Prison counselor Graves said she has had to make cutbacks during the shutdown, even as she and other Prison Bureau employees have continued to work.

“I’ve got a 15-year-old in high school and I pay for As,” Graves said. “I said, ‘I’m going to have to pay you in IOUs.’ ”

Coleman said other officers at the Edgefield federal prison have slept on cots overnight to avoid the cost of commuting.

Catherine Romelfanger, a Columbia retiree, joined protesters outside the airport Friday. She sold her house to a federal employee a few months ago, before the buyer lost their paycheck in the shutdown.

“They haven’t sold their old house yet,” Romelfanger said. “They have to pay two mortgages.”

Cameron Smith of Florence has been supporting her partner, a prison worker, and their 5-year-old son with her part-time job in a chiropractor’s office

“It’s stressful,” she said. “And the government doesn’t care. They just want to push their agenda.”

Despite the uncertainty of the shutdown, the federal employees said they never really considered walking away from their jobs.

“I won’t be able to,” Reed said. “It’s hard to find something where I’m making what I make now.”

Graves has worked for the Prison Bureau for 14 years already and could draw federal retirement after 20.

“I pray I’ll be able to get through the six years I have left,” she said.

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Bristow Marchant is currently split between covering Richland County and the 2020 presidential race. He has more than 10 years’ experience covering South Carolina. He won the S.C. Press Association’s 2015 award for Best Series on a toxic Chester County landfill fire, and was part of The State’s award-winning 2016 election coverage.