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When There Is No Pay On Payday For Federal Workers

Internal Revenue Service worker Christine Helquist demonstrates during a federal workers protest rally at the Federal Building on Thursday in Ogden, Utah.
Rick Bowmer / Associated Press
Internal Revenue Service worker Christine Helquist demonstrates during a federal workers protest rally at the Federal Building on Thursday in Ogden, Utah.

As the government shutdown continues, thousands of federal workers who should be paid Friday won't receive a paycheck. The shutdown puts a financial strain on workers, especially those in high-stress jobs in national security or air traffic control who are working without pay.

Jirs Meuris, an assistant professor of management and human resources at the Wisconsin School of Business, spoke to Marketplace host Kai Ryssdal about the financial stress that many federal workers could be feeling. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Kai Ryssdal: So we know that losing your income can be stressful. The thing I wanted to touch base with you on is what happens when that stress affects your job? And I'm thinking now about some of the people who have been declared essential, working without pay, TSA, FBI, air traffic controllers. What happens to them as they try to perform at the high level that we expect?

Jirs Meuris: In my research, I've consistently found that when employees are worried about their finances, it can undermine their ability to be productive at work. And this is not just how much they work or how much they're able to do, but also the quality of their work. And so what you find is that, for example, truck drivers are more likely to get into accidents. Students do worse in class. So across all these jobs, what we've found is that when people have this financial insecurity, it's going to affect them at work. And now you have federal workers who are deemed to be vital to national security, who are working without getting a paycheck and who are also uncertain about their financial future, and so we would expect those same effects there — more errors and declining safety for all of us.

Ryssdal: To be completely candid, I'm a reader of Jim Fallows column in The Atlantic. He's a friend of the program and we've had him on many times, and he's how we found you. And Jim is very aviation focused. So let me keep going in that vein. Air traffic controllers — I saw a tweet today from a guy who has been an air traffic controller for 29 years and just got a zero-dollar paystub. What does it do to you as you're driving planes around the sky or helping them get there?

Meuris: At a very psychological level, what it does is that when people have financial issues or they have insecurity about their financial state, it tends to evoke anxiety, and that leads us to focus on this for two reasons. One is because we just think about it more often. But also because you don't want to show it to people, and that depression of what we're going through also focuses actually our attention on it. And so because we're so focused on it, we can't focus on our work throughout the day. And so if you have an air traffic controller who didn't get their paycheck and now they're worried about their mortgage, well, they're not going to be as attentive to the things that we would want them to attend to and probably that they will want to attend to.

Ryssdal: Does this go away once, in our immediate example, the shutdown has ended? I mean, if the shutdown ends tomorrow, are we good?

Meuris: The unfortunate answer is most likely no. Many reports have shown that in the United States, their personal financial welfare is very, very poor. Most people don't have $400 in case of an emergency. And so the government shutdown is just exacerbating that. And these effects of this shutdown on these people will last for a very, very long time. And so we should really be concerned about what's going on and thinking about ways to address those issues.