Written by: Jack Healy
Angela Kelley kissed her 3-year-old granddaughter goodbye and sent her up the steps of her Montessori school. She had to get ready for work. Or, for what passed for work on this gray morning a month into the shutdown.
On any other Thursday morning, Kelley, 51, would have been settling into her desk at the federal Bureau of Land Management’s offices in downtown Milwaukee, ensconced by office plants and the security of a federal job that Kelley believed would always provide for her and her family.
But now, her office is her car. And until the government reopens, her only source of income is driving for Uber, one of a galaxy of improvised jobs and side hustles that have turned unpaid federal employees across the country into unlikely entrants into America’s gig economy.
Across the country, idled federal workers and contractors are taking up last-resort jobs with ride-hailing services and delivery apps. They are flooding school districts with applications to become substitute teachers. They are taking baby-sitting gigs, working shifts at local gyms and auditioning for yoga-instructor slots.
“It’s almost as if I’m starting over again from a teenager,” said Felicia Thompson, who started delivering takeout dinners and groceries after being furloughed last month from her public affairs job with the Department of Agriculture.
Thompson, who lives in Upper Marlboro, Maryland, said she had two children in college, a father in the hospital with pneumonia and little savings to get by. She said she was considering paying a penalty to raid $13,000 from her retirement account to pay her mortgage, debts and other bills for a few more months.
Federal workers, many of them highly educated, are limited in the type of work they can take as they wait out the shutdown. Anything connected to an employee’s area of expertise is unlikely to be allowed under federal rules, which require approval for jobs that could conflict with government work. And as the Trump administration forces thousands of furloughed employees back to work without pay, some said that job hunting seemed pointless.
“Who’s going to hire me not knowing how long I’m going to stick around?” David Arvelo, a Food and Drug Administration employee and local union official in Dallas.
Even the search for temp work was costing money that people did not have. In Cadillac, Michigan, Debra-Ann Brabazon, a furloughed Forest Service worker, said she was paying $100 to get fingerprinted and background-checked so she could get certified as a substitute teacher. She was down to eating one meal a day. She did not have $100 to spare.
When a friend posted that she was looking for child care, Brabazon said she leapt to volunteer in exchange for grocery money.
“I was a nanny in college,” she said. “I am falling back on everything I’ve learned about how to survive.”
Kelley was just trying to earn enough to buy fresh fruits and pull-up diapers for her granddaughter Avery, who is legally in her care. As she began her day as an Uber driver, she tucked Avery’s car seat into the trunk, swept up the half-eaten Cheerios the girl had sprinkled across the back seat and then propped her phone on the dashboard. She gave the Uber screen a tired smile to verify her identity, and a map popped up: “Finding Trips.”
“We kind of just sit here till one comes up,” she said.
An hour later, around 9:30 a.m., it felt like not a single one of the Milwaukee area’s 2 million residents needed a ride. Her phone showed her total haul so far: $0.00.
“A lot of it is sitting and waiting,” Kelley said.
On her best days driving since the shutdown began, she could make $50 or more. It was not nearly enough to replace the $1,100 she took home every two weeks from the federal government. But it was enough to help pay for car insurance, gas and the February payment on her bronze SUV. Just being out helped shake off the sadness of another morning of jobless limbo.
“It gets me out of the house. It gives me a routine,” she said. “I need to function. I can’t just sit and wallow in my bed all day. I’ve got to get up.”
As she headed downtown to look for riders, Kelley said she was better off than many workers — living with a roommate helped her save on her bills. But she had no savings and said that if the government did not reopen by the month’s end, she would start looking for other full-time work.
She said she had always been proud of her ability to take care of things, how she raised two daughters as a single mother while she was working full time and getting a bachelor’s in health care administration. But on Jan. 10, worried about next month’s bills, she set up a GoFundMe page, joining more than 2,000 other federal workers using the site to seek help during the shutdown.
Through her windshield, she could see office workers huddling together for smoke breaks and clumped around conference tables in glassy ground-floor offices. She turned onto Van Buren Street, and there was her building where she did payroll and maintained the office equipment at a desk overlooking a parking lot.
“But it’s a window. I love it,” she said. “I so want to go to the office.”
She parked outside the Milwaukee Intermodal Station, hoping to snag someone getting off a train and cut the engine to save on gas. On slow days, she said she knits or reads until her phone pings with a ride.
Finally, it did.
“It’s only been two hours,” she said.
A young man in a suit hopped in and they drove 0.9 miles to his office at the accounting firm PWC.
After a month without work, time was starting to mush together into one long stretch. Was today Wednesday? she wondered. No. She was sleeping only four hours some nights and said the psychological toll of the shutdown was growing. She had long since given up watching the nightly news (“too depressing”), and said she avoided talking about bills and money in front of Avery.
She blamed President Donald Trump for the shutdown and scoffed when he said he could relate to what federal workers were going through.
“You don’t,” she said.
Four hours into the day, her injured right knee was starting to flare up — a sign that if she did not stop driving soon, she would not be able to walk without a burning pain. She had gotten just one ride, earned less than $4.
“We’ll make a way,” she said. “We’ll figure it out.”
Some of her co-workers were getting together that afternoon at a Middle Eastern restaurant that was offering free lunches to federal workers, so Kelley drove over. Squeezed into a booth, they talked about canceled vacations, dreading their mortgage payments and which colleagues were struggling the most.
As they were leaving, one woman mentioned that she was heading to a cocktail party that evening, because there would be free food. Kelley looked up: “If you need an Uber driver, call me.”