By Samantha Schmidt
January 26, 2019
In the hours before President Trump announced a deal to end the government shutdown, Julio Salado said he felt like a prisoner in his own house. The furloughed federal corrections officer in Miami had 99 cents in his bank account and no money for gasoline, he said.
But a thousand miles away in Puerto Rico, three of Salado’s children were also feeling the weight of the government shutdown. Every two weeks, $600 in child support is garnished from Salado’s paycheck and distributed between his 11-year-old daughter and two older sons.
Bracing to miss his second paycheck this week, Salado realized there could be legal repercussions for failing to make two child-support payments. But that was far from his mind.
“That’s not my priority right now,” he said on Thursday. “How will I get through the week? . . . There might be consequences, but I’ll justify it.”
Like Salado, scores of furloughed federal workers struggled to make child-support payments this month that would normally be withdrawn directly from their pay, leaving former spouses and children with gaping holes in their monthly budgets.
On Friday night, President Trump signed legislation to reopen the government for three weeks, giving federal workers and their dependents a temporary reprieve. However, the workers are unlikely to receive pay before late next week.
Family law experts said there could be ripple effects after the shutdown for non-custodial parents who already missed a child-support payment, making them vulnerable to administrative sanctions or even contempt of court.
Furloughed parents obligated by the state to pay child support could face back payments and administrative sanctions for missing a child support payment during the shutdown. Depending on the state, parents could theoretically lose their driver’s licenses or professional licenses. Eventually some of these cases could find their way to the court for failure to pay child support on a timely basis. But in many states, including Maryland, parents who prove an inability to pay child support cannot be sent to jail, said Harry Siegel, who practices family law in Maryland.
Siegel says he has helped dozens of furloughed federal workers in recent weeks with filing modifications to court orders for child support. But even after filing a request, it generally takes weeks for a hearing to take place, at which point the modification is likely to be useless for the future payments because the government has reopened and incomes would have been restored.
Even so, filing for a modification can save legal grief later. Stephanie Troyer, a supervising attorney with the Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia, said most people with child support obligations do not realize that they cannot legally request a modification to a court order for child support after a payment has been missed.
Katherine Morris, a spokeswoman with the Maryland Department of Human Services, which oversees the Child Support Administration, said her office was handling support concerns on a case-by-case basis. State officials were instructing local offices to limit or suspend enforcement in cases in which people fall behind in payments because of the shutdown and urged federal workers to contact the local office to arrange payment plans as soon as they return to work after the shutdown.
Benidia Rice, director of child support services in the D.C. attorney general’s office, said officials had no intention of enforcing sanctions against parents who cannot pay child support because of the shutdown. But she encouraged federal workers to contact her office.
“Our goal is to work with parents so that none of those things occur,” Rice said.
Thousands of federal employees across the country have child-support obligations. In Maryland alone, there are 5,000 federal workers whose wages are garnished for child-support payments, not including federal contractors and workers who make child-support payments outside of wage withholdings, according to the Maryland Department of Human Services.
Single custodial parents across the country described feelings of helplessness as they grappled with missed child-support payments from their former spouses. Many said they desperately needed the checks but would hesitate to make their former spouses pay, knowing that they were suffering as well.
The shutdown came at the worst possible time for a Tampa Bay, Fla., mother and former spouse of a furloughed Coast Guard employee. The mother, who asked not to be named out of concern for her ex-husband’s job, was in the middle of moving homes. The little savings she had went into a security deposit and first and last month’s rent.
A quarter of her family’s income comes from a monthly alimony and child-support payment from her ex-husband, who is based overseas and with whom she has little communication. When his payment did not come this month, she approached her bank, which she heard was offering government shutdown assistance. But because she was not a federal worker or spouse of a federal worker, she did not qualify for the aid, she said.
“I’m just trying to stretch every dollar that I can,” she said.
While most federal workers will receive back pay once the government reopens, federal contractors will not, making it particularly difficult for them to catch up on bills such as child-support payments.
Mike Babcock, a railroad conductor in the Austin area who works with a firm that contracts with the federal government, usually works 12-hour shifts six days a week. But for the past month, he has been able to work only two shifts a week and has received none of his pay yet. He expects to get back pay for the little time he has worked, but it will be about 75 percent less than his normal monthly income.
Worried about making his $550 bimonthly child support payments for his 9-year-old son from a previous marriage, he appealed to the Texas attorney general’s office for help. “They were just like, ‘Get another job,’ ” Babcock said. In the past month, he has submitted scores of job applications and interviewed for two positions, with no luck, he said.
While he managed to make his child-support payments this month, he nearly drained his savings doing so.
“Do I pay for groceries or do I pay for child support?” he said. “One of these is going to end up with me in jail.”
For federal workers who were already behind on child-support payments, the shutdown has further exacerbated financial strains on the families that depend on them.
A single mother of two in Buffalo said her ex-husband is almost $7,000 in arrears for child support. Last month, the 40-year-old woman filed a request to garnish the child support from his government paycheck, hoping it would finally force him to pay. But then came the shutdown, and her former husband stopped getting paid. The Washington Post is not identifying the woman because her ex-husband could not be reached for comment.
The woman worried that her house would go into foreclosure if she failed to pay her mortgage at the end of the month.
“I’m treading water, and I don’t know how much longer I can go,” she said. “I don’t have any other options.”