Shutdown ‘demoralizing’ for Maryland town of low-wage federal workers
By RACHEL CHASON | The Washington Post | Published: January 21, 2019
CAMP SPRINGS, Md. — Annie Ha spends hours waiting for customers in her empty nail salon. Leroy Harmon is spotting personal training customers for sessions they can no longer afford. In a town where a federal job has long been a foothold to the middle class, the number of free lunches given out at the local elementary school jumped from zero to 41 last week.
This is Camp Springs, Md., an unincorporated town of 20,000 just outside the nation's capital that has one of the largest concentrations of low-wage federal workers in the D.C. region.
The median salary for federal employees in Camp Springs is $48,661, according to data compiled by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. That's less than half the $104,275 median for federal workers in all of Maryland and well below the median income for all workers —both public and private — in the state.
That means the partial government shutdown that began Dec. 22 is hitting especially hard here. Economists say the standoff is costing the Washington region more than $100 million a day, and Maryland officials estimate that 172,000 federal workers in the state are losing $778 million in salary every two weeks. But in Camp Springs, the loss is measured in empty chairs at beauty shops, a pronounced slowdown at local restaurants and school-lunch balances that have run dry.
Federal workers from a host of agencies, furloughed or working without pay, find themselves missing monthly bill payments or visiting food pantries for the first time. The businesses they usually patronize are feeling their absence.
"I've never seen it like this," Ha said, sitting in her empty salon in a strip mall off Allentown Road, which borders Joint Base Andrews in Prince George's County. Customer traffic is down between 40 percent and 50 percent, she said. She has enough money saved to cover three months of rent but is nervous about what will happen after that.
"And I worry about my customers," she said. "I hope they come back."
Managers and owners of a hair-braiding shop, a real estate business, a 7-Eleven and other stores echoed the frustration. Harmon, who runs his personal training company in Camp Springs, said he has offered to provide some of his customers who are federal workers, or whose parents are federal workers, with free sessions. But many have been too proud to accept.
"It's been terrible," said Kazi Hasan, whose family owns 15 America's Best Wings restaurants in Prince George's. "If things continue to go this way, then people like us might have to shut down a few places."
A few doors down from the wing shop is a Giant Food grocery store, where people lined up an hour early in freezing temperatures Jan. 12 for a food giveaway in the parking lot hosted by the Capital Area Food Bank. In all, 600 people came. The food was gone within an hour. The organization hosted a similar event this weekend, which drew nearly 200.
A proud enclave, struggling
Prince George's County Executive Angela Alsobrooks, a Democrat, grew up in Camp Springs, a town of modest brick houses and commercial strips, and said federal workers and contractors have long been a core part of the community.
Seeing pictures of the line for food donations, she said, "broke my heart."
Alsobrooks' office is coordinating public and private efforts to help furloughed workers, including offering before- and aftercare for children at county facilities and tapping into an emergency fund to help residents make their mortgage and electrical payments.
"These are decent people who are working. It's so demoralizing for them," Alsobrooks said.
She is also worried about small businesses and churches, which may never recoup their losses: "The trickle-down effect means we won't even know the impact for a while."
Leaders at St. Stephen Baptist Church did not know how many people to expect when they decided to host a food giveaway for furloughed workers Wednesday night. Even among the church's members, some are reluctant to admit need, said community outreach leader Gwendolyn Gantt.
"But if you get hungry enough, you'll come," she added.
Michelle Scott, a Camp Springs resident who was furloughed from her job as an analyst at the Food and Drug Administration, said the giveaway was the first she had attended. She has been having trouble sleeping, worried about how she will provide for her 6-year-old daughter and 18-year-old son, who has autism and epilepsy.
"I have never felt so out of control of my own life," said Scott, 39, sitting in the apartment she recently moved into, which she had hoped to finish decorating this winter.
That was before the shutdown — before she began calling creditors to ask for deferments, applying for food benefits and nervously watching her gas tank. Before she had to tell her son that she couldn't afford the lava lamp he really wants.
Scott volunteers regularly at church and her daughter's school and said she had mixed emotions as she picked up potatoes, beans, grapes and milk supplied by the Capital Area Food Bank at St. Stephen.
"Happiness that there are folks helping," she said, "and sadness that I was forced to be in such a situation where I was on the 'other side' of the table."
She started crying as she left the church.
Handing out bags filled with meat was Renee Hunter, a furloughed human resources specialist at the Justice Department who is planning to work part time at Shake Shack to help cover bills for herself and her 8-year-old daughter.
"It's a strain financially," she said, even as she managed bright smiles for the people she was serving. "I've gotten good at making a big pot of spaghetti and having it last for three days."
No money for lunch
In a Camp Springs laundromat, college sophomore Christian Cropp said he has been cooking more and going out to eat less since his aunt, whom he described as the primary breadwinner for their family, was furloughed from her job at the U.S. Agency for International Development.
"It's just us four," said Cropp, who lives with her, his grandmother and his mother, who has picked up extra shifts at the Pepco electricity utility.
"I want to work, but I'm in school," he said as he waited for clothes to dry. "I just want it to stop."
At Allenwood Elementary School, the number of students needing free lunches has soared since Jan. 11, when federal workers missed their first paychecks.
Before then, none of the 430 students received free lunch, said Principal Shawna Fagbuyi. Many parents at the school, she said, are college educated, engaged in their children's educations and "don't want to claim need."
Nonetheless, there were 28 students whose lunch accounts were empty Tuesday, 41 Wednesday.
The school is able to pay for the lunches because Prince George's County Public Schools has raised more than $30,000 as part of a 10,000-meal challenge it launched in light of the shutdown.
Fagbuyi said the next dilemma could come when teachers have to collect money for an upcoming field trip.
The silver lining, she said, is that parents who have been furloughed are increasingly showing up in the classrooms to volunteer.
Volunteers prepare to hand out food to furloughed workers who stop by St. Stephen Baptist Church during the partial government shutdown on Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2019, in Camp Springs, Md.
RICKY CARIOTI/THE WASHINGTON POST