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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Working without pay, federal workers in Spokane start taking loans to pay bills

Kendra Wolftalks on Thursday, Jan. 17, 2019, with loan officer Peggy Kotur at Spokane Federal Credit Union about the terms of a loan  she and her husband, a National Weather Service meteorologist, are applying for. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)

In the dozen years Joshua McPhee has worked for the Federal Aviation Administration, he and his wife, Aimie, have weathered a few government shutdowns.

The extended nature of this one concerns the north Spokane couple.

Joshua McPhee still reports to his federal air traffic controller job at the Spokane International Airport, but he isn’t getting a paycheck.

Nothing on the national news makes the couple hopeful. Instead of movement toward passage of a federal budget, they see a stalemate, with politicians from both sides digging in.

“The fear comes from the length of this. Now we’re in our fourth week,” Aimie McPhee said. “We’re starting to dip into our nest egg.”

The couple was approved for a $5,000 zero-interest loan this week through the Spokane Federal Credit Union. They’ve put the money into their savings account to use for emergencies until the government reopens and McPhee receives his back pay.

His wife works as a deli manager at Rosauers, so their family still has one paycheck.

But it’s a stretch to support the family of five, which includes the couple’s three school-age boys, on her income alone.

“We have grocery bills, a mortgage and car payment. Everything a typical American family has, that’s what we’ve got going on,” Aimie McPhee said.

Other local families are feeling the squeeze, too.

Within 24 hours of announcing interest-free loans for federal workers this week, SFCU was blitzed with calls.

Loan officers have approved six loans. They’re processing another 10 applications, and they’ve received 10 additional inquiries. Employees also are working with members on deferring payments for outstanding loans.

This is the second time SFCU has made this type of zero-interest loan available, said Charlotte Nemec, president and chief executive officer. The first time was after the 2015 windstorm to help local residents whose homes were damaged by the gale-force winds.

SFCU was founded in 1956 by seven federal workers. The majority of the credit union’s 11,500 members in Spokane, Stevens and Pend Oreille counties are federal, state and county employees and their family members.

“We owe our existence to federal workers,” Nemec said. “We believe we need to do this to help these people.”

Providing loans without charging interest affects the credit union’s bottom line, but the executive staff quickly decided it was the right thing to do, Nemec said.

“These families are already experiencing financial stress, and we didn’t want to be adding to that stress” by charging interest, she said.

Kendra Wolf stopped by the credit union Thursday morning to apply for a loan. Her husband, Jeremy, is a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Spokane.

Like Joshua McPhee, he’s among the estimated 450,000 federal workers who remain on the job despite not getting a paycheck. It’s a frustrating situation, said the stay-at-home mother of two:

“He’s still working the same hours. Nothing changes except no paycheck.”

The uncertainty has plunged their household into a financial guessing game. Although she isn’t panicking, Wolf wonders if she should cancel the family’s Netflix account and gym membership or whether the government will reopen before that’s necessary.

The youngest of the couple’s two sons had a birthday last week.

“He’s 6 and he still expects presents,” Wolf said.

While the couple expects to receive back pay, they don’t know if it will arrive in a lump sum or be paid over several paychecks.

Wolf said she’s deeply grateful for the ways the Spokane community has reached out to federal workers, offering free tickets to the Spokane Symphony, free pet food and the zero-interest loan through the credit union. But Wolf said she gets frustrated when she hears members of the public suggest federal employees can live off loans or work as Uber drivers while they wait for their pay.

“That gives the illusion this is OK. It’s not OK,” Wolf said. “I can’t imagine any other employer forcing their employees to come into work and not get paid for an indefinite amount of time.

“They’re dedicated to their work, they like jobs, they know how important it is to the public,” Wolf said of her husband and his co-workers. “But they have families.”

This story was updated to correct the spelling of Kendra Wolf’s first name.