MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
For government workers who aren't getting paid, the shutdown feels more dire every week, every day. Savings dry up. The bills keep coming. In the small town of Oakdale, La., working at the federal prison was a ticket to financial security - good salary, good benefits. Now the people with those jobs are making extreme decisions about how to keep their families afloat. Our co-host Ari Shapiro traveled to Oakdale to meet some of them.
ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: If Louisiana is a boot, Oakdale is the ankle, smack in the middle of the state, more than three hours' drive from New Orleans or Houston. A typical family in Oakdale makes about $30,000 a year. People at the prison earn thousands more than that from day one, so these were the jobs people were excited to get.
COREY TRAMMEL: In all of my years, I never thought that America couldn't pay their workers.
SHAPIRO: Corey Trammel is one of the local union leaders at the Federal Correctional Institution.
TRAMMEL: I thought of a whole lot that could go wrong in the prison setting but never to have an employee look me in the eyes and tell me, I cannot afford child care; I cannot afford gas to get to work; I can't afford my mortgage. How do you answer something like that?
SHAPIRO: The union arranged for us to meet some of the workers in town who are most affected by the shutdown - corrections officers, case managers, secretaries. We sat down with them at the Burger Inn, a local restaurant that's been in Oakdale since the '70s.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Five dollars even is your change, Sir. Thank you very much.
SHAPIRO: The managers are offering a special $5 meal for federal workers. Many of the people we met told us they can't even afford that right now, like Nathan Dyer. He's a big, burly guy who looks the part of a prison guard.
NATHAN DYER: I pray every morning on my way to work.
SHAPIRO: What is the prayer that you say?
DYER: Just hoping it - you know, it'll end soon. I think about a lot. Like, my little boy's birthday is Friday. And me and my wife talked about last night, like, we - I mean, I know years down the road, he'll never remember 'cause he's 2. He won't remember. But we're talking Friday night about, like, what are we going to buy him, you know what I mean?
SHAPIRO: The emotions just pour out of everyone. This conversation is the first time in a month that some of these people have let down their defenses with each other.
ANITA KADROVIC: We have a armor up, so some of the emotions that we've seen in here today we normally don't see because we're all supposed to be tough. We work in a prison. We're not supposed to show feeling.
SHAPIRO: This is Anita Kadrovich, a single mother. She spends her days driving inmates to medical appointments, but she's been postponing her own medical care. She has rheumatoid arthritis.
KADROVIC: Walgreen (ph) has called me five times to come get my prescriptions and stuff. I can't. I live 45 minutes away from Walgreens, so I'll make one trip whenever it gets time where I have to go and get my medicine and stuff and bring it home.
SHAPIRO: She has the time to make the 45-minute drive, but she doesn't have the gas money, so she needs to stack her errands before she goes to the town of Alexandria. A lot of people are having trouble buying gas. It's under $2 a gallon right now, and some still can't afford the commute to work. So the prison has set up cots for employees who can't make it back and forth each day.
KADROVIC: It's a good idea to have the cots and stuff for the staff. Well, when you're a single parent and you have teenage kids at home, you have to go home at night to make sure they're OK and they're taken care of. And you can't just leave them home alone.
SHAPIRO: Anita's son is 16 years old. She's canceled his after-school activities. There's no money for them even though she is still working more than 40 hours every week.
KADROVIC: And, you know, so now it's breaking everybody down. And then you got inmates taunting you, saying, oh, you didn't get a check today (laughter).
SHAPIRO: They do that.
KADROVIC: Yes, they do that.
SHAPIRO: A lot of federal workers are in very difficult situations where they're not dealing every day with inmates who are trying to take advantage of those difficult situations. And that must make it all the more challenging. I mean, you're talking about being taunted. Can any of you tell me about how the inmates are responding to or trying to take advantage of this?
DYER: You know, these inmates - you know they see - like you said, they see us not getting a paycheck, so that makes them more apt to try to bribe you. Hey, man, look; I'll give you $1,500 you bring a cellphone in, or I'll give you $500 for a pack of cigarettes. And it might not stop at a cellphone. It could be anything - dope, a gun. It puts that much more stress on everybody as a whole.
DYER: It's insane.
TIFFANY KIRKLIN: A lot of them think it's funny. I had one tell me he made more this month than I have. And he's - it's true because he got a paycheck, and I did not.
SHAPIRO: That's Tiffany Kirklin. Prisoners work jobs behind bars and get paid less than minimum wage, still more than the guards are making right now. As bad as this situation is, it just seems to keep getting worse each day the shutdown continues. One event that happened last week is on everyone's mind. Nathan is the first one in the circle to bring it up.
DYER: Like, this dude tried to take his life. And he's - you know, he's a good person. And, like, it's that serious to people. Like, people don't understand.
SHAPIRO: The whole group knows the prison guard who attempted suicide. He posted on Facebook about the pressure of the shutdown just before he tried to kill himself. The man is expected to make a full recovery.
DYER: It's unbelievable how many people don't realize. Like, I hear people, like, on different radio stations and stuff. Like, I heard today, and it made me so mad. I was furious. I heard these two guys say that - they were talking about how, like, restaurants and stuff will give you discounts. And they were like, these federal workers - they're, like, stray cats. You feed them once, and they're going to keep staying around. Like, I wanted to beat my stereo plum out the truck.
SHAPIRO: And when you're at work, you look around, and you know that everybody there...
DYER: Yeah, everybody's suffering.
SHAPIRO: ...Is going through what you all are describing.
KIRKLIN: You don't know what somebody's situation is. I don't know...
SHAPIRO: This is Tiffany.
KIRKLIN: Yeah, I don't know what Nathan's situation is. And we can say, well, they should have had savings, but you don't know what they had to go through. People are having to get second jobs. My husband can't be here tonight because he's working a second job.
SHAPIRO: What kind of job did he take?
KIRKLIN: Right now he's stocking at a convenience store.
SHAPIRO: Nobody who met us at the Burger Inn wanted to talk about politics. Border wall or no wall, they just said they resent powerful people using them as ammunition in this fight. As union leader Ronald Morris put it...
RONALD MORRIS: We don't want to be pawns in anybody's game.
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SHAPIRO: In another part of the program, we'll explore how the consequences of this shutdown are rippling out across the town of Oakdale beyond the government employees who've been working without pay.
RODRICK JAMES: Them few hundred had a ripple effect because they have to go a barbershop, get haircuts. They had to come to different kind of restaurants and eat. Oh, that's not got to cease when you're not getting a paycheck, so everybody start suffering on the back end of this. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.