Approximately 800,000 employees have been left without pay — wondering how to cover all their bills — amid an ongoing partial shutdown of the federal government.
The government itself is grappling with some of those same issues.
Earlier this month, the water authority in Washington, D.C. was notified by the Treasury Department that they would not have all of the funds to pay the government’s upcoming bill for services to a vast swath of federal buildings, including the White House, PEOPLE confirms.
While the government owed about $16.5 million for water, the shutdown left them able to only pay about $10.5 million, DC Water spokesman John Lisle says.
But the government doesn’t pay its water bills the way you might imagine, and they are treated differently than an individual: Each quarter the government pays in advance for the upcoming three months, one lump sum for all of its accounts.
This means that even though the Treasury Department was short in January’s payment, the bill was actually through March. “They’re not really past due,” Lisle explains.
“So if we got to late March or into April, when another [quarterly] payment was due, then that might change the situation. But for us we’re not going to shut off their water,” he continues.
Lisle says where the lack of funds could create long-term issues is with DC Water: The government accounts for about 10 percent of its revenue and is its largest customer. But the missed payment has not been a problem so far.
And while news of the underpayment raised the question of the government’s water being shut off entirely — perhaps the most widespread example of the shutdown’s stalled services — Lisle says such a move would essentially be seen as a last resort.
“Generally we do not shut off the government accounts or university accounts,” he says. “Organizations that operate under these group bills, we don’t typically charge them late fees or shut off their water. Hypothetically, yes, if it went on and on and it was impacting us and our ability to pay bills — then we could perhaps change that. But we’re not at that point. It’s not something we’re contemplating.”
As of now, Lisle says, DC Water expects the full amount owed to be paid once the shutdown ends. (The Treasury did not immediately respond to a request for comment.)
The government closed on Dec. 22 over President Donald Trump‘s demand for a border wall with Mexico, and it could become the longest such closure in American history, eclipsing a 21-day shutdown in the ’90s.
It remains unclear how the freeze will resolve: Negotiations have been fruitless so far and the Democratic House majority, empowered by the midterm elections, say they will not give the president the wall money he seeks.
Nancy Pelosi, the House speaker, has dismissed a call for a border wall as “immoral.”
Last week Trump said the standoff could last months or years.
Donna Kelly, a 63-year-old great-grandmother who works at the Smithsonian, is one of the hundreds of thousands of workers scrambling in the shutdown.
“I want them [Trump and Congress] 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 told PEOPLE recently.
“I have to work, I need to work,” Kelly said. “If I am not working I can’t provide for myself.”