DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Of course, for American families, a single paycheck is their margin of error, and that includes many federal workers. Nearly 14 percent of the federal employees who are not getting paid make less than $50,000 per year. That's more than 100,000 people forced to make difficult decisions during this record-setting shutdown. NPR's Leila Fadel talked to some of them.
LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: Amy Fellows has been skipping meals for days now.
AMY FELLOWS: Because I want to make sure my kids have that food.
FADEL: She's a correctional officer in the Southwest for the Federal Bureau of Prisons. I reach her on Skype. She didn't get paid on Friday. As a single mom of three kids - a 10-year-old, a 3-year-old and a 12-month-old - she needs every check for the family's basics. She makes $49,000 a year.
FELLOWS: I do live paycheck to paycheck, so, you know, I was able to pay for my rent and my utilities for the first of the month, but now I have nothing in my bank.
FADEL: She has less than nothing - a negative balance of $400, and she's already worrying about February's rent. And as essential personnel, she still has to work, sometimes 16-hour days. But to work, she has to pay for day care she can't afford - another impossible choice. She could lose her job if she calls in sick too many times to watch her children.
FELLOWS: I've actually had to call out three times because I can't afford day care, and I don't know what I'm going to be doing, you know, tomorrow.
FADEL: Fellows could already be facing disciplinary action for the time she's missed. And to keep her family afloat during the shutdown, she's thought about getting a second job, but she already works full-time and has to get approval from the Bureau of Prisons for outside work. She's also thought about a loan, but she needs good credit to keep her job.
FELLOWS: If I apply for a loan and the government stays shut down, I can't pay the loan. It's going to go on my credit. So we're kind of stuck in a bind. We can't do anything. You know, I thought of the possibilities of getting credit cards, but then it's another bill that I'm not going to be able to pay and jeopardize losing my job, for sure, by not having good credit.
FADEL: If the government doesn't reopen soon, she might have to quit her career in law enforcement and find something else to support her family. She says politicians are treating this like a game where one side or the other wins.
FELLOWS: I don't think they're realizing how many families they're affecting. It's impacting so many people. And to think that it's OK and just send us law enforcement back into work every day, I think it's very selfish of them.
FADEL: Selfish of politicians, she says. This week, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said this on Fox News about the shutdown.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FOX NEWS SUNDAY")
LINDSEY GRAHAM: You've got two bad choices here. Continue the stalemate and see parts of the government shut down. It will be inconvenient, and it can create problems. And to the federal workforce, I'm sorry you're caught up in this mess. But the real damage is people coming across the border.
FADEL: For the government workers affected, they say the word inconvenient does not capture the dire situation they're in. And they say they're experiencing real damage. The real estate website Zillow estimates that federal employees who are not getting paid owe $438 million in rent and mortgage payments each month. And with February 1 around the corner, federal workers that aren't getting paid are using words like desperate and afraid to describe their situation.
Brianna Bedard's husband is in the Coast Guard stationed at Lake Tahoe. She's a stay-at-home mom. The couple have been saving up for a down payment to buy a house for their young family. They have two daughters.
BRIANNA BEDARD: It took us five years to save that, and we were hoping to buy a house in the spring. And now we're using that money to pay our bills this month.
FADEL: And maybe next month as well. She's planning ahead. She got the utilities company to push the due date for her next bill. She's called her Internet provider, the car insurance company, renters insurance, and she's negotiating with the landlord. But soon, her daughters' preschool tuition will come due.
BEDARD: I just really don't want to have to pull her out of school 'cause that would just be really disruptive for her life and for her learning.
FADEL: If the shutdown goes on for much longer, she says, she's considering moving in with her parents.
BEDARD: To me, this seems like it's a complete unnecessary burden to put on us. There was no reason to take away our paychecks or other federal workers' paychecks.
FADEL: She says they're caught in the crosshairs of a fight that has nothing to do with them. And she and her husband don't know if they're planning for the short term without being paid, or the long term, as the battle in Washington continues. Leila Fadel, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF DEEB'S "FLUID DYNAMICS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.