63-Year-Old Great-Grandma Is Out of Work in the Shutdown and May Not Get Back-Pay: 'People Are Suffering'

Donna Kelly, 63, was especially vulnerable to the ongoing federal government shutdown, which affects some 800,000 workers

Donna Kelly_Courtesy of Julie Karant, 32BJ SEIU
Photo: Courtesy of Julie Karant, 32BJ SEIU

Just a few months ago, Donna Kelly didn’t think that this would be her life: applying for food stamps and returning to Medicaid.

But the 63-year-old single great-grandmother was especially vulnerable to the ongoing federal government shutdown, which affects some 800,000 workers. Kelly, from Washington, D.C., works as a full-time security guard for the now-shuttered Smithsonian, making little more than minimum wage as a contract worker.

She lives paycheck to paycheck — as do the majority of other Americans — and with no savings to speak of to get her through the funding freeze, Kelly has had to turn to welfare this week.

“I’m real concerned,” she tells PEOPLE. “I’m trying not to stress too much, it’s not good for my pressure.”

Yet worry she does. With high blood pressure, pain in her knees and back and acid reflux, she worries about how long her medication will last and about how she will pay for the refills. She worries about not having the $50 for the co-pay to see a doctor and about not having money for her next insurance premium. She worries about not having food.

“I have to work, I need to work,” Kelly says. “If I am not working I can’t provide for myself.”

The partial government shutdown is in its third week with no end in sight for hundreds of thousands of unpaid government workers.

“As of today, I paid my rent and I paid my childcare and I do not know how I am going to pay the rest of my bills to get through the month,” Kristie Scarazzo a 45-year-old single mom who moved to California in the fall for a dream job with the government, told PEOPLE recently.

“It’s ugly and unfortunate,” she said.

Contract employees face the added uncertainty of possibly never receiving back-pay when the shutdown does resolve. Both Kelly and two of her daughters fall into that category.

Donna Kelly, a Smithsonian guardCR: Courtesy of 32BJ SEIU
Donna Kelly. Courtesy of Julie Karant, 32BJ SEIU

“For workers who work for contractors, and who don’t work directly for the government, there’s no guarantee that they’ll be paid,” Lenore Friedlaender, assistant to the president of Kelly’s union, told BuzzFeed News. “The increasing reality is that they have to be prepared for the fact that they may never get that money.”

Those workers include the 550 security guards, cleaners and handymen that the union, 32BJ SEIU, represents and who work in federal buildings, a spokeswoman tells PEOPLE.

Kelly expects a paycheck soon for the partial week she worked before the Smithsonian closed on Jan. 2, and she is hopeful that the unemployment benefits she applied for will begin arriving in the next several weeks.

But more bills are always coming due, and she’s nervous about how she’ll pay for gas and electricity at her home, for which she receives subsidized assistance through Section 8.

On Sunday, President Donald Trump, whose insistence for funding for a proposed southern border wall led to the government closing, said it could “go on for a long time.”

Kelly has a message for both Congressional lawmakers and Trump.

“I want them to understand the seriousness of this shutdown and how it affects the people, because there are a lot of people who depend on their paycheck and we can’t survive without it,” she says.

“It’s very serious,” she continues. “People are suffering. They need work and need to be able to provide for themselves.”

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