Banks and credit unions move to help federal workers hit by shutdown

By Gregory Wallace, CNN

(CNN) -- Banks and credit unions that cater to federal workers are readying financial help for their customers as the government shutdown drags on.

The assistance includes low- or no-interest payroll advances and loans for workers facing dwindling cash reserves.

A total of 800,000 federal employees have been furloughed or working without pay since December 21, and won't receive their next paychecks until the government reopens.

"Our observation is that the folks that we serve are not wealthy people," said Scott Spiker, the chairman and CEO of First Command Financial Services, whose customers include members of the Coast Guard.

While the Department of Homeland Security found money to pay Coast Guard payroll at the end of December, future paychecks are uncertain if Congress and President Donald Trump can't strike a deal on border wall funding.

On Monday, a union representing federal workers sued the government for requiring some employees deemed "essential" to work without pay.

Assistance for federal employees

Spiker told CNN that First Command is offering its members who are federal employees interest-free payroll advances, as well as other assistance.

Democracy Federal Credit Union is offering a short-term emergency loan with 0% interest, lending director Antoine McStay said. Bankers are also referring customers with specific concerns to their in-house financial counseling services, he said.

Other institutions, like USAA Bank and Transportation Federal Credit Union, have said they'll provide low-interest loans to their customers.

USAA spokeswoman Laura Propp told CNN that "thousands" have reached out to the bank for help or advice.

Many workers may be starting to feel the pinch only now that the shutdown is stretching into a new pay period.

Spiker added that for many of his bank's clients, "their big payments coincide with their checks" at the beginning and middle of the month -- including mortgage payments, car loans and utility bills.

"Many people have payments that they try to have land on the 1st," he said.

Gloria Bowden, executive vice president at Democracy Federal Credit Union, said missing paychecks produces a "domino effect."

"If they don't get paid, then their loan does not get paid, which puts them in a past-due or delinquent status," she said, which can damage credit or lead to costly fees.

Contractors may not be eligible for help

While federal employees typically receive back pay after the government reopens, federal contractors often do not.

That means lenders can't necessarily count on contractors being able to quickly repay the loans or advances, and offers for federal employees like the emergency loan from Democracy Federal Credit Union aren't available to them.

Assistance for contractors is a "traditional banking equation," Spiker of First Command explained. Contractors will require more scrutiny than federal employees "to understand their future ability to pay."

McStay said Democracy Federal Credit Union is offering contractors other options, such as delaying their payments on existing loans.

The Office of Personnel Management was widely criticized after it posted sample letters that federal workers could send to creditors asking for forgiveness or flexibility. Suggestions included offering manual labor in lieu of payment.

While reaching out to creditors makes sense, Spiker said the OPM recommendation that government employees offer to barter services such as painting "in exchange for partial rent payments" rings hollow.

"That is a very hard position to put people in," Spiker told CNN. "In many cases for these folks, they're not trained to be negotiators, and there's not a widespread marketplace that says, 'Gee, landlords, be good citizens and everybody chip in.' "

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