Families save, spend wisely as 2nd shutdown looms

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U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer 2nd Class Mayra Barton eats dinner with her daughters, Dahlia, 5, (left) and Avery, 3, (right) at Blackwell Memorial Baptist Church, Monday night. Not shown is Barton's husband, B.J. Barton.


By Chris Day
Multimedia Editor

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

With no agreement currently in sight for keeping the federal government open after Feb. 15, families of local U.S. Coast Guard personnel and civilian federal workers are bracing for yet another partial shutdown.

A number say they’re conserving their money and spending it wisely, in case they find themselves furloughed or working without paychecks like they did during the first shutdown.

Several families affected by the recently ended shutdown enjoyed a free barbecue dinner at Blackwell Memorial Baptist Church, Monday night. The dinner was hosted by three local churches: Blackwell Memorial, Cann Memorial Presbyterian and First Baptist Church.

Elizabeth Whitmer, the pastor at Cann Memorial, said the three churches frequently partner to support community projects.

“This was a perfect venue for us to do that, to continue our partnership,” she said, of the dinner, which included homemade barbecue pork, cole slaw, baked apples, corn bread and more.

When the first shutdown ended on Friday, Jan. 25, after 35 days, it marked the longest partial closing of the federal government in the nation’s history. During that time Coast Guard members did not receive their normally scheduled check on Jan. 15. Their last paycheck was Dec. 31. Approximately 800,000 federal workers received their last paycheck on Dec. 22, and many of them were furloughed or forced to work without pay.

The shutdown ended after a compromise was reached between Congress and President Trump to reopen the government temporarily while the debate over funding for border security continues. Trump is seeking $5.7 billion for a border wall and if an agreement or compromise can’t be reached by Feb. 15, a part of the government that funds the Coast Guard and numerous other non-Defense agencies could shut down again.

Among those attending Monday’s dinner was Sheena Thorn, whose husband is a civilian firefighter at the fire station at Coast Guard Base Elizabeth City. Thorn was joined at dinner by her four young children, Liam, Levi, Leah Grace and Lane.

Thorn’s husband is a federal employee, and while he was not furloughed during the shutdown he did have to work without getting paid, she said. Since the shutdown ended he has received one paycheck but as of Monday, Thorn said, he was still awaiting back pay on a second.

Thorn said the free dinner sponsored by the churches represented a significant savings in her grocery bills, especially since she has three boys, she said.

“They eat like they have hollow legs,” Thorn said, pointing to her boys and laughing.

Thorn homeschools her children and does not work, and the majority of her husband’s latest paycheck went toward the family’s mortgage payment, she said. Looking ahead to Feb. 15, Thorn said she and her husband are being mindful of how they spend money.

“We’re just not spending any extra money,” she said. “Every dollar you get paid you need to hold on to in case there’s a shutdown again.”

Coast Guard spouse Crystal Etheridge was joined by her son, Andy, who will be 2 years old soon.

“I do think it’s a wonderful thing our community has been doing,” she said, of the community’s continued support. “They’re really going above and beyond.”

Etheridge said the community’s support has gone a long way toward boosting and maintaining Coast Guard morale.

“We’re OK,” she said of her family’s situation. “We have family nearby who’ve offered financial support.”

Asked about Feb. 15 and another possible government shutdown, Etheridge said most Coast Guard families are saving their money and spending it wisely.

“This is a time of conservation for most,” she said.

At another table at Monday’s dinner, Petty Officer 2nd Class Mayra Barton was having dinner with her civilian husband, B.J. Barton, and their two daughters, Avery, 3, and Dahlia, 5.

“This is the first dinner we’ve done, but we took advantage of the food bank,” Mayra said, referring to the pop-up food bank the Chief Petty Officers Association has opened to help families at its clubhouse on Cardwell Street.

B.J. said that since Jan. 25 the family has received two checks from the Coast Guard, the back pay from the missed Jan. 15 paycheck, and Mayra’s regularly scheduled check for Feb. 1. Coast Guard personnel, like members of all branches of the armed services, are paid on the 1st and the 15th of each month. That is unless one of those days falls on a weekend or holiday; then they are paid on the weekday preceding that weekend or holiday.

B.J. said some of the pay the family has received went back to replenishing their savings account, a source they had to draw from during the shutdown.

In preparing for the dinner, Whitmer’s husband, Dave, spent last weekend cooking 118 pounds of pork butts in the backyard of his home, the pastor said. Barbecue is a common meal to lift the spirits and to bring people together.

“What better way to support them than with barbecue?” she asked, while also pointing out that members of the participating churches provided the sidedishes.