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Sequester could upend lives of federal workers

President Barack Obama (L) and Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) take part in a ceremony honoring the late civil rights activist Rosa Parks on February 27, 2013 in Washington, DC. Obama and Republican congressional leaders are still trying to find a solution to avert sequester cuts that could threaten wages for federal employees.

Erika Townes is the breadwinner for her family of five.

Erika Townes will have to juggle bills if she has to take unpaid leave because of sequestration.

Octavia Hall is president of the American Federation of Government Employees office at Andrews Air Force Base.

We're just a day away from the sequester -- the $85 billion worth of  federal spending cuts due to kick in Friday.  Unless Washington changes its mind, some federal workers stand to lose as much as 20 percent of their pay.

Erika Townes is a nurse at Andrews Air Force base in Maryland. She makes less than $50,000 a year, and has been fighting foreclosure. So when Townes heard she might have to take unpaid leave one day a week because of sequestration, her first thought was, "Will I keep my house? What bills will I be able to pay?"

“With the sequestration, now we’re talking about full-on juggling," Townes says. "Let me put something on this, let me put something on that.”

Ironically, Townes could lose her job if she runs up too much debt, trying to make up for the sequester pay cut. Her job requires a security clearance. She has to maintain a certain credit rating to keep her clearance and her job.

“The Department of Defense is not going to say, oh well, you know, sequester, that’s OK," she explains. "That’s not how it works.”

Since borrowing could put their jobs in jeopardy, Defense Department workers will have to turn to other sources of aid if they’re forced to take unpaid leave. The union office on Andrews Air Force base has prepared packets of information on local shelters, food banks and counseling services.

Octavia Hall, president of the local branch of the American Federation of Government Employees, says the sequester would lop 20 percent off of her members’ paychecks when their take-home pay is barely enough to cover their bills, as it is.

“Take home, $900," she says.  "For two weeks. So cancel 20 percent off of that.”

That 20 percent pay cut would ripple through the economy. Stephen Fuller, an economist at George Mason University, says the sequestration cuts would shave one percentage point off of economic growth this year. He says an economy that’s been staggering anyway will be punch drunk after sequestration.

“You can have a good time without getting smashed," he says.  "And the sequester is getting smashed and it will have enormous short term consequences that won’t achieve any purpose.”

Fuller says those consequences won’t be felt immediately if sequestration kicks in. Federal workers have to be given at least 30 days notice of any unpaid leave.

Erika Townes says that’ll give her time to think up a plan B, and maybe start looking for a second job. 

About the author

Nancy Marshall-Genzer is a senior reporter for Marketplace based in Washington, D.C. covering daily news.

Erika Townes is the breadwinner for her family of five.

Erika Townes will have to juggle bills if she has to take unpaid leave because of sequestration.

Octavia Hall is president of the American Federation of Government Employees office at Andrews Air Force Base.

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