The force is strong with this furloughed worker.
Like many, Michael Mateos, a graphic designer and contractor for the federal government, is out of work because of the partial shutdown. Like many workers in his position, he is looking for ways to earn income while paychecks are on halt.
But this furloughed employee found a unique way to make money during the shutdown. Mateos has taken on freelance jobs, and he’s also making money from a hobby: Building intricate “Star Wars” figurines that he sells for hundreds of dollars each.
The 40-year-old dad of two realized last summer he was one of many “Star Wars” fans in his community, but he never expected it to be a money-maker. Mateos uses his creative talents to construct smaller-scaled replicas of famous “Star Wars” characters and ships, including Stormtroopers and TIE fighters, and sells those models for $300 to $400.
A typical vehicle takes about three to four days to create during time off, what with sanding, prepping, priming and painting the model. Clients have also been asking for lighting, which takes even more hours out of his day.
Mateos has done three models since the shutdown started in late December, and he has a wait list for requests. “This makes up for the rest of the salary deficit I can’t get from freelance work,” he said. At current prices, he could make up to $2,000 per month if he were to work most days.
Although the artist said he’s happy to do work he loves, especially knowing it makes like-minded “Star Wars” fans happy, his hobby has also kept him from dwelling on the potential impact of a shutdown. “It is a huge stress reliever,” he said. “I have basically been keeping myself as busy as possible during the shutdown so as not to think about it.”
Six months ago, he and his wife, an interior designer in the private sector, purchased a house in a neighborhood they’ve been wanting to live in for years, but the house is old, and they planned to do renovations in the new year.
With the government shutdown, those plans are on hold, and the money they saved for those projects is being put towards just keeping the house. “We are hoping the shutdown doesn’t last longer than January, because then we will really start to be concerned,” he said.
‘I have basically been keeping myself as busy as possible during the shutdown so as not to think about it.’
Federal workers around the country are struggling financially because of the shutdown, as are local businesses around them who cater to the government and its workers.
More than 800,000 federal workers have already missed their first paychecks of the year while on furlough, and more than half of these workers, including Transportation Security Administration employees and traffic controllers, are expected to report to work without pay. That figure also does not include the thousands of federal contractors out of a job while the government is closed.
The shutdown, now the longest one in U.S. history, is the result of a debate between President Trump and Congress to fund the building of a border wall between the U.S. and Mexico. There’s currently no end in sight for the shutdown, which could last months or years, the president said.
Some banks and lenders are offering financial aid to impacted employees, through initiatives such as zero-interest loans or reversing overdraft fees. But federal employees still have a heap of bills to pay, including mortgages or rent, credit cards, student loans, taxes and everyday essentials like groceries and utilities. The House passed a bill on Jan. 11 that ensures back pay for some furloughed workers.
Contractors like Mateos are not guaranteed back-pay from their employees. Unlike federal employees, however, they’re not restricted as to what they can do to earn money while on furlough. Many federal workers need permission from their managers if they want to take on a part-time job while out of work, but they can’t get that permission without access to their work emails or if their managers are also temporarily out of a job. So they’re caught in something of a Catch 22.
Federal agencies dictate what their employees can do to avoid potential conflicts of interest. “It is important to keep in mind that while on furlough, an individual remains an employee of the government,” the National Aeronautics and Space Administration said in a FAQs about furloughed employees. “Since ethics advice will not be available during a shutdown, employees need to be very cautious about accepting employment with any firm or entity that does business with NASA.”
The U.S. Office of Personnel Management states: “Before engaging in outside employment, employees should review these regulations and then consult their agency ethics official to learn if there are any agency-specific supplemental rules governing the employee.”
Displaced government workers are looking to alternative sources of income while out of work. Some furloughed workers are turning to eBay
to sell some belongings and yard sales to sell belongings.
Ted Rossman, an industry analyst at CreditCards.com, suggests turning to eBay or even having a yard sale. “That’s probably the easiest, cheapest and fastest way to generate some cash,” he said. That, of course, assumes they have valuables to sell or even wish to sell.
Unable to raise or earn cash, other employees are taking desperate measures and turning to payday lenders, according to federal budget expert Stan Collender. Payday lenders disperse short-term loans to people who need cash fast, and do so at a premium: Interest rates can range from 300% to nearly 700%.
And then there are employees, like Mateos, who are just trying to stay optimistic, focusing less on the politics around the shutdown and more on what he can do to help himself, his family and others. “I’d rather spend my free time doing what I like,” he said. “It keeps me happy and motivated.”
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