Furloughed family feels strain as government shutdown stretches on

Image: Joe and Kate Zimmerman
Joe Zimmerman, furloughed from his job within the Department of Agriculture, and his wife Kate discuss the effect of the shutdown on their family. Copyright NBC
Copyright NBC
By Ali Vitali with NBC News Politics
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Joe Zimmerman, a sidelined federal worker, said he considered getting a second job, but needs permission. There's no one in his department to grant it.


BOONE, Iowa — Kate Zimmerman admits she's downright angry about the government shutdown.

Her husband, Joe, is a federal worker furloughed from his job, one of 800,000 total who are either sidelined or working without pay because of the ongoing partial government shutdown. He's not at work — something he said "cuts into who I am" — and he's not bringing home a paycheck.

"I get outraged frankly," she said during a conversation with NBC News Tuesday over a pile of bills at their kitchen table. "Because the issue everyone's screeching about is whether we need a wall or border security. And that's certainly a pressing issue...What I don't understand is why they're taking the pay away from all of us instead of evaluating it. Put us all back to work, let all the people like my husband do their jobs…and then debate the wall."

As the shutdown stretched into its third week, Joe, an environmental engineer for an agency within the Department of Agriculture, said he considered getting a second job to supplement his income — but there's a catch.

"You have to have permission to do that," Joe said. "So at this point who would I ask permission? The government's shutdown. My supervisor's not at work, their supervisor's not at work. How do I go through the formal process of requesting outside work? If you take outside employment without that permission, there could be consequences to your job when you go back to work.

Frustration aside, the Zimmermans count themselves among the more fortunate. While they've already dipped into their savings to keep paying bills, they planned for an unforeseen financial emergency and say they have enough in their savings account to get them through March. But if the shutdown goes on longer than that, as President Donald Trump has warned it might, the Zimmermans will be faced with some tough choices.

But the financial pressures aren't the only ones the family faces. They say they've tried to shield their young son from the shutdown's impact on their daily lives, and they're finding it hard to explain a seemingly inexplicable situation to him.

"He cries," Kate said, adding that he doesn't understand why the various sides of the disagreement . "He keeps saying 'How come they're not talking?' And I don't have an answer...He keeps asking why and I don't have an answer because I don't understand myself."

For now, they're in a holding pattern, waiting for "someone in Washington" to "do something."

But should the shutdown stretch on past March, Joe's choice — even with the catch — really isn't a choice at all.

"Do we worry about what's going to happen long term with this job or do we feed our kid? That's really no argument," said Kate. "We will do whatever's necessary to keep food on the table and gas in the cars."

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