Shutdown woes extend beyond US federal employees

WASHINGTON (AFP) - The economic impact of the United States (US) government shutdown fell first on the federal employees sent home from their jobs, but it may fall hardest on often low-paid support workers in the private sector.

In the US capital, thousands of nannies, plumbers, sandwich makers, IT workers and others have been brutally reminded that their employment also relies on government, albeit indirectly.

And, although lawmakers and President Barack Obama are seeking a way to guarantee back pay for federal employees, there is little hope that those outside the government will recoup their losses.

Mr Aboubakarim Ndao, a 24-year-old Senegalese immigrant and father of two, works at Au Bon Pain, a popular cafeteria chain that sells pastries, sandwiches, salads and other light fare.

But the store he works at is located inside a federal building, which means, since the government mostly ground to a halt on October 1, there aren't a lot of people looking for breakfast and lunch.

Mr Ndao said the cafe can normally find work for 12 people per shift, "but this week and last week, there were maybe five people."

He usually works between 32 and 35 hours a week, but last week, he was only able to clock in 16 hours. "This week, it's going to be 16 hours or less than that," he said.

Ms Roxi Shryock estimates on a normal week, at least 70 per cent of the people who come to the branch of the Potbelly Sandwich Works she helps manage are government employees.

Business has dropped nearly in half since the shutdown.

"Our projected sales are around US$24,000 (S$30,000) a week, and since the shutdown, we've been doing roughly US$13,000," Ms Shryock, 26, said.

But she said the worst impact is on her hourly employees.

"Instead of being open from 7.00am to 7.00pm, we're open from 11.00am to 5.00pm," Ms Shryock said. "Everybody got their hours cut by 10 to 15 hours a week, if not more."

"They make minimum wage as it is, and they work hard, and cutting their hours that much could mean people's bills don't get paid," she said.

Mr Steve Spencer works in IT for a federal agency, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission helping administer the content management system.

But he's not an employee, he's a contractor.

During a shutdown, "there's no billable time," Mr Spencer explained, which means "the contractors cannot get paid by the government," even once it reopens.

"We're probably not as affected as other families," said Mr Spencer, 40, explaining he has some smaller non-government contracts he can work on for now.

Nevertheless, he estimates he normally earns around 80 per cent of his income from his government contract.

"It's frustrating," Mr Spencer said of "the day in and day out of waiting to see just how long it's going to last."

"It would be one thing if they said they were going to shut down the government for three weeks in September, and then you could plan accordingly."

Meanwhile, his bills remain the same, including the salary his family pays to the nanny who cares for their two children.

Right now, despite the shutdown, the Spencers haven't cut their nanny's hours.

"We'll go to great lengths" to keep her hours steady, Mr Spencer said, "as we realise that her salary for her family is very important."

But not everyone can make that decision.

A political analyst for a government agency, who asked not to be named, said she is sad that she couldn't afford to keep paying her nanny without her own paycheck.

"We hired an employee who also has a family she has to provide for," the woman said. "I want her to have the ability to help provide for her family too."

Ms Odina Hernandez is worried about just that. Before the shutdown, she worked as a baby sitter three days a week for one family and one day a week for a second family.

But only the second family needs her during the shutdown.

Her husband, a plumber, has been impacted too, since the company he works for has a contract in a government building.

"I have two kids," Ms Hernandez, 30, said. "I have to pay bills. I have to pay everything. I have a car. It's not good."