WASHINGTON— When Tom Penders took a job seven years ago with the Air Force, he thought he had hit the jackpot.
Penders has a disabled daughter named Becky. She was born with no eyes, and has severe autism and epilepsy. A job with the federal government was life changing: it meant a steady paycheck and more importantly, good health insurance for his family.
But the budget battles in Washington have turned some of the country's most stable careers into uncertain ones. That's especially true for people like Penders, whose job as a cultural resources manager, which includes inspecting launch and landing pads at the Cape Canaveral Air Force base, has been affected twice in recent months; first by sequestration and now by the government shutdown.
"They are saying we are going to get paid when the shutdown is over. I am living paycheck to paycheck. My wife can't work, I'm the bread winner for our family," he said in a phone interview with BuzzFeed. "We are already in the hole from the last furlough. We had to go to Ohio to get a service dog for my daughter, and we have expenses from that. Now I'm sitting here wondering how I'm going to pay my utility bills."
When sequestration hit, Penders was furloughed for one day a week for six weeks. He says he will not recover his pay from that time. When the government shut down last week, Penders was at first deemed a "non-essential" employee and was furloughed again.
Now that a bill to give furloughed workers back pay looks likely to be signed into law, he's been called back into work. But Penders said he is now actively looking for another job because he doesn't believe that Congress won't shut down the government again in the future.
"I can't depend on this anymore," he said. "What happens next year? Or two years from now? I haven't had a cost of living adjustment in five years. But furloughing me twice in a three month span is just killing me," he said. "I have to go back to work if I want to get paid when the furlough is over…I get to go to work for free and wait till I get paid a month from now."
While Penders says his government health care plan is "extremely good," he adds that Becky's healthcare needs are still expensive.
"I'm not looking for charity, I'm not looking to be a sob story, I just want to go to work and get paid. I don't know what that's so hard for people in Washington to understand. The longer this goes on, the more depressed I get," he said.
Penders identifies as a registered independent, having voted for both Democrats and Republicans in the past. He said he voted for his current congressman, Republican Bill Posey, but in his view, it's Congressional Republicans who are to blame for his current situation.
"The Affordable Care Act was voted on by Congress, signed into law by the president and was challenged by the Supreme Court which upheld it," he said. "It's law, it's the law of the land. Republicans can't deal with it, or won't accept it, and are trying to derail it, and they are using me and my federal fellow employees as pawns in this."
"They don't even care, they just don't care… I can tell you one thing I will never vote for a Republican again for anything."
Kate Nocera is the DC Bureau Chief for BuzzFeed’s Washington, DC bureau. Nocera is a recipient of the National Press Foundation's 2014 Dirksen Award for distinguished reporting on Congress.
Contact Kate Nocera at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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