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Government workers the real victims of shutdown

Tuesday, 8 Oct 2013 | 10:03 AM ET
A government scientist stands with other federal workers at the Capitol
Bill Clark | CQ Roll Call | Getty Images
A government scientist stands with other federal workers at the Capitol

For politicians, the most important shutdown deadline is Oct. 17, when the United States must pay interest on its debt or risk default. Meanwhile, federal employees are focused on Friday, Oct. 11: Payday.

Employees are already preparing for their wages to be cut in half, since the government shutdown made the most recent pay cycle four days shorter. The real fear is the security of the paychecks to follow.

Candace Sabo of San Antonio, Texas, called Citigroup last week to see what her options were, if her husband Greg, a fire inspector at Lackland Air Force Base, is forced to go without several paychecks.

The Sabo family supports its $1,400 monthly mortgage payment—and 10 children—with Greg's $72,000 salary. A Citi representative told the Sabos they would qualify for a loan modification for their mortgage, which Candace says she will evaluate further if the shutdown worsens.

"It definitely was important to us to make the contact with them and say, 'Hey, this is where we are right now,'" Candace said in a telephone interview. "But we're probably OK until the end of the month."

Banks 'bail out' furloughed workers
An unlikely hero is stepping in to help some 800,000 government employees out of work because of the shutdown, reports CNBC's Kayla Tausche.

(Read more: So what if there's a default? 5 things to remember)

Banks have been keeping in close contact with federally employed customers as the ongoing government shutdown raises more questions about how some employees will make ends meet.

The Web page for Chase Bank now offers a portal for government workers who are worried about the status of their accounts. Bank of America, Wells Fargo, and PNC Bank say they are working customers individually to find solutions.

In some cases, banks have been proactive in offering assistance. TD Bank on Oct. 10 will launch "TD Cares," a program that offers, among other options, a payday loan at no interest up to $1,000.

For now, banks say, the volume of customer calls has been low, as most employees won't technically be going without pay until after this week. Some employees who are living paycheck-to-paycheck may still feel the pinch since pay is halved. Most are fearful for Nov. 1, when the mortgage is due.

(Read more: What job creators think about economy now)

That's the case for Jay, who works for as an administrator for Social Security outside Philadelphia. (Anxious about more fallout once work reconvenes, Jay requested that CNBC use only his first name.) Jay said he will prioritize the mortgage payment over other bills, which he suspects will lead to a "flurry of late fees and added interest."

The SSA has given its employees a memo on official letterhead to send to their creditors in asking for flexibility. The letter reads, in part:

I am writing to you on behalf of the Social Security Administration (SSA) employees to ask for your assistance at a time of personal financial hardship.

Congress and the President have not reached agreement on the appropriations bill for SSA. Since SSA has no funding at this time to pay employee salaries, we have been required to furlough employees.

This action will make it exceedingly difficult for many employees to meet their financial obligations. I would appreciate any assistance you could provide in arranging the postponement, temporary reduction, or rescheduling of payments for any current financial obligation with your organization.

Amid the shutdown, the Social Security Administration could not be reached for comment or verification.

Jay has sent the letter to Wells Fargo, his mortgage provider, and Great Lakes, his student loan servicer, and hopes to hear back by next week. In the meantime, he is also reaching out Tuesday by phone to see if he can miss a payment or pay only interest until the situation—"a well-documented, national matter," he says—is settled.

"When you go to work for the government, you trade higher potential earnings in the private sector for the knowledge your 'business' will never go out of 'business,'" said Jay, who is also preparing to welcome a second child with his wife in mid-November.

(Read more: Banks: Don't even think about prioritizing payments

Gail Cunningham, spokeswoman for the National Federation of Credit Counselors, said the shutdown should serve as a reminder to build savings for a "rainy day."

"You should have a month's salary in a savings account," Cunningham said. "That's the flat tire, or the unexpected expense."

A "rainy day fund" for the Sabos is far-fetched: Sequestration budget cuts slashed Greg's hours at Lackland by 20 percent this summer, cutting the family's income by $800 each month.

To plug the gap, Candace and her daughter started selling homemade bread to their church community, while Greg and one of his sons have been mowing their neighbors' lawns.

"We sat the gang down and looked at where we needed to cut," Candace said. "We take these things one day at a time."

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