JEFFERSONVILLE — Somehow Kristy Demas summoned up the enthusiasm Thursday afternoon to decorate signs that would be used later that day at a protest on the steps of U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell's Louisville office.
Demas, a statistical clerk at the U.S. Census Bureau's National Processing Center in Jeffersonville, has been on furlough since Dec. 26, five days after a partial government shutdown took effect and jeopardized the livelihoods of more than 800,000 federal employees.
At the American Federation of Government Employees Local 1438 office, in the shadow of hulking census bureau warehouses, Demas and a handful co-workers — some on furlough, others working but unsure whether they'll be paid — hurriedly scribbled on poster board, placing their emotions on paper.
"What I want to see happen is the government to reopen so that we can go back to work and get a paycheck," said Demas, who marked 21 years at the census bureau this month. "It is very frustrating that we are literally being held hostage by Washington, D.C."
About half of the census bureau's 1,700 Jeffersonville employees are on furlough, while the other half are working but are pelted with uncertainty about whether they'll receive wages for their labor. The last paycheck for all employees hit Dec. 28. The next official payday is Thursday, Jan. 18, but some employees' paychecks land in their bank accounts much earlier — as soon as Friday.
"The proof will be in the pudding Friday," said Victoria Martin, president of Local 1438. "The rumor is that payroll is not going to be dispersed, but we've heard nothing official."
So federal employees like Demas and her co-workers do what they can: protest, and share their stories, all while fretting how they'll keep the heat on in the dead of winter, or pay their mortgage or rent and insurance and medical bills. As the shutdown stretches into its third week, and President Donald Trump and Congressional Democrats are locked in a standstill over nearly $6 billion in funding for a wall along the U.S-Mexico border, Southern Indiana livelihoods hang in the balance.
"It's horrible," Martin said. "There's no other way to say it."
Adding to the misery for Demas is that three months ago she found out she has ovarian cancer. That her landlord won't cut her a break on her rental in Memphis is the least of her worries.
"Now I can't get my treatments at the end of the month because I don't have the money for the co-pays, things like that. It's just a whole added layer of stress on top of not working," said Demas, who also helps take care of her blind mother, ill sister and a brother who was injured and is on disability. "As a family we try to help each other the best we can, but I'm the only one that works full-time. I have bills like everyone else."
Many census bureau employees, like many non-federal workers, live paycheck-to-paycheck. Alice Wadsack, who has been working since the shutdown but is unsure if she'll be paid next week, is her family's only source of income.
Wadsack, 32, finally scraped up enough money to move into a trailer in Corydon six months ago with her 4-year-old son and her son's father. When the furlough hit, Wadsack's landlord delayed January's rent payment a month, but charged her a $25 late fee. So on Feb. 1 she'll have to pay rent for January and February, which totals $1,025. Toss in the electric bill (she got a $247 tab in the mail last week) and $180 a month she pays in gas driving from Corydon to Jeffersonville, and Wadsack's $782 paycheck quickly drowns in expenses.
Adding to the uncertainty: Wadsack was told that in two weeks she and other employees would be moving to part-time work as the shutdown trudges on.
"I barely make it as it is when I get my checks on a regular basis with a full 40 hours," said Wadsack, whose son is developmentally delayed and unable to attend daycare. "So I don't know how it's going to work when I go to part-time anyway."
Wadsack's and her co-workers' frustration was palpable Thursday as they feverishly wrote on the poster boards, hoping to encourage McConnell to take action and work to end the shutdown.
"I suggest that the Senators and the Congressmen and the President, since they're so conveniently not doing anything else but sitting there pointing their fingers, donate some of the salary they're conveniently getting to those of us that are doing without," Wadsack said. "That's a nice little thought. One hundred percent put your money where your mouth is."
In an address to the nation from the Oval Office on Tuesday President Trump made his case for funding border security, and in a visit to the Mexican border Thursday, edged closer to declaring a national emergency as a way to circumvent Congress. The Democrats' Tuesday response to Trump's address focused on the reopening of a full government — and both sides seem unwilling to budge.
Meanwhile, federal workers like Demas suffer.
"I want people to know that we all have stories," she said. "We all have things in our lives. If you weren't getting your paycheck how would you feel? We just want to come to work. We just want to get a paycheck.
"We just want to be able to support our families, just like everyone else out there. We're not given that opportunity, and that's not right."