Furloughed FDA Worker Hits The Streets To Drum Up Extra Cash

Oct 10, 2013
Originally published on October 10, 2013 6:33 pm

Ten days into the partial government shutdown, the estimated 800,000 furloughed federal workers have got to be feeling a bit stir crazy.

Congress has agreed to pay back the furloughed workers for the time they are shut out of the office, so for some it's like an unexpected, but paid, vacation of indeterminate length. But the more than a week of shutdown definitely means going without that cash in the short term. And for some of those workers with less of a financial cushion, that means getting creative.

To bring in some extra cash, Jonathan Derr, a furloughed writer and editor at the Food and Drug Administration, packed up a makeshift drum set fashioned out of paint buckets and set up outside a Washington, D.C., Metro station. He played alongside his basset hound, Doug, and a sign that read "FURLOUGHED. Throw us a bone."

The money wasn't bad, he says. On the two days Derr went out to drum last week, he made almost double the hourly wage he earns at the FDA.

"It was tax-free, so that was nice," Derr told All Things Considered host Melissa Block. But, he says, it's not exactly a stable salary, and he only played for three hours.

Derr lives with his wife, Ashley, a stay-at-home mother who also teaches stroller exercise classes, in Silver Spring, Md., and their 20-month-old son.

Ashley says they expect Jonathan's paycheck (for the pay period that started just before the shutdown) to be about half of what they usually expect. It's something they can weather, she says, but she looks forward to the next pay period and worries what they'll do if the government remains shut down.

"That will certainly be a financial challenge," she says.

In the meantime, Jonathan says that on top of banging on buckets, he's already sold his Nintendo and video games to drum up some cash. He says a lot of federal workers he knows are feeling pinched by the shutdown.

"Before the shutdown happened, people were living paycheck to paycheck," he says. "It's hard enough to survive with a paycheck, and when you take that away, that's really a problem for people."

Still, there is a silver lining for the Derr family: The unexpected time off means the family gets to spend some unexpected time together, even if it is with what Ashley calls a "rain cloud of worry."

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Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block.

The government shutdown continues, now in its tenth day. To make a little extra cash, earlier this week, one furloughed federal worker packed up a makeshift drum set, fashioned out of plastic paint buckets. He took his basset hound, Doug, and set up outside a Metro station here in Washington with a sign reading: Furloughed, Throw Us a Bone.

(SOUNDBITE OF DRUMMING)

BLOCK: Drummer Jonathan Derr is a writer and editor at the Food and Drug Administration. He lives in Silver Spring, Maryland, outside Washington, with his wife, Ashley Derr. She's a stay-at-home mom, who also teaches a stroller exercise class for a little extra money. They have a 20-month old son. And they both join us now to talk about the shutdown and how it's affecting them.

Thanks for being with us.

JONATHAN DERR: Hi, Melissa.

ASHLEY DERR: Hi.

BLOCK: And, Jonathan, first let us know how the drumming went.

DERR: Oh, it went really well. I went down two days last week and I wound up making pretty good money. I made almost double per hour than what I make at the FDA.

BLOCK: And did you do it to pass some time or to bring in some extra cash?

DERR: It was to bring in extra cash. You know, right now we don't have any paycheck coming in whatsoever. So, you know, having the cash flow just from drumming on buckets was, you know, it was a nice little blessing on the side.

BLOCK: And how much did you bring in?

DERR: The first day, I made $64.80. And then the next time I went down, I made 52.10.

BLOCK: For how many hours?

DERR: An hour and a half each time. So, over the course of three hours over a hundred bucks, so it wasn't bad.

BLOCK: Well, Ashley, why don't you give us a sense of your family's finances and if Jonathan will be getting a paycheck for his past work before the shutdown?

DERR: Sure. So we should get a paycheck tomorrow. We get paid every other Friday. And this paycheck will be for, I believe, six days of work that he completed before the shutdown began. So, once deductions for health care and so forth are taken out, I'm expecting his paycheck to be a little bit less than half of what his normal pay would be. And then, that's it until hopefully the government reopens.

BLOCK: Right, the idea is you will be getting back pay eventually.

DERR: We hope so. I noticed that, thus far, only the House has actually passed that bill. But we are very, very hopeful that we will get back pay.

BLOCK: Right, and that paycheck that should be coming tomorrow, can give us a sense about how much that will be, and how much that can tide you over?

DERR: Sure. So, probably approximately I'd say $900 or so.

DERR: Mm-hmm.

DERR: Luckily, most of our bills for October - our mortgages and so forth - have already been paid. The tricky thing is, of course, then if we do not get our paychecks two weeks from now, on October 25th, that will certainly be a financial challenge.

BLOCK: Well, in the meantime, Jonathan, have you been cutting back on things?

DERR: Sure, I mean, I've just been doing things around the house - playing the bucket drums - I mean, anything I could think of. I went downtown and sold my Nintendo and old Nintendo games. So anything I can think of to bring in a little bit of extra cash because, in the meantime, until we get that retroactive pay we have to live on credit cards.

DERR: I feel fortunate that at least we're in a situation where we have credit cards with some breathing room and could charge things if we needed to. I know some families don't have that.

BLOCK: But you'd rather not be put in that position.

DERR: Right, of course. Our normal way of operating is to pay any credit cards off in full every month and to live within our means.

BLOCK: Is there sort of a fraternity of federal workers, Jonathan, whom you talk to about all this?

DERR: Sure, friends and coworkers, yeah. I have family that are in the federal government. And everybody is - you know, before the shutdown happened, you know, people were living paycheck to paycheck. And it's hard enough to survive with a paycheck. And, you know, when you take that away, that's really a problem for people.

BLOCK: I imagine the two of you are seeing a whole lot more of each other than you're used to.

(LAUGHTER)

BLOCK: Is there any upside to this enforced furlough - this paid vacation, essentially?

DERR: The one silver lining that I can say is that I do get to spend more time with my son. Being able to see him, that is very nice but, you know, I would much rather be getting paid to do my work.

BLOCK: You're also getting to see more of your wife. I think she's probably sitting there wondering why didn't mention her.

(LAUGHTER)

DERR: Oh, he can go back to work anytime.

(LAUGHTER)

DERR: No, it has been nice getting to spend some unexpected time together as a family. I just wish that we were able to spend it enjoying it, rather than always having this sort of rain cloud of worry over our head about the paycheck.

BLOCK: Well, Ashley and Jonathan Derr, thanks so much for talking with us.

DERR: Thank you.

DERR: Thank you.

BLOCK: Ashley Derr is a stay-at-home mom. Her husband Jonathan is a writer and editor with the Food and Drug Administration. He's been furloughed as part of the ongoing government shutdown. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.