Furloughed From Work? A Survival Guide for Federal Employees

If you’re losing your livelihood or significant income in the government shutdown, here’s what to do.

 WALL, SD - OCTOBER 01: A sign in the Pinnacles Entrance station of the Badlands National Park warns visitors the park is closed on October 1, 2013 near Wall, South Dakota. All national parks were closed today after congress failed to pass a temporary funding bill, forcing about 800,000 federal workers off the job. A bulletin issued by the Department of Interior states, 'Effective immediately upon a lapse in appropriations, the National Park Service will take all necessary steps to close and secure national park facilities and grounds in order to suspend all activities ... Day use visitors will be instructed to leave the park immediately...'
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Federal government employees are out of work, and so are numerous contract workers who count the government as a client. And then there are people like Steve Silberberg, 52, based in Boston and the owner of Fatpacking.com, which specializes in fitness backpacking adventures throughout the country.

"Since our destinations are primarily national parks and national forests, we can no longer operate," Silberberg says.

Surely Silberberg is exaggerating a little. Can't his operation go somewhere other than a national park or forest? Not as easily as one might think. First, his guided trips are typically 40 to 100 miles long, and although state parks are an option, hiking through a national park is part of the allure of his business. Silberberg also needs to apply for permits to lead his hikers (usually about 12 per trip) and camp in the parks and wilderness areas within national forests, and the permitting offices are closed. When they do open, he doesn't expect to get his permits quickly since the offices will likely be backlogged with paperwork.

If the shutdown continues and Silberberg has to begin refunding money – an early November trip in Arkansas is now in jeopardy – he figures three of his contract employees will lose $1,000 each. Silberberg expects he will lose $10,000. "I know this isn't much for many people," Silberberg says, "but I promise you, taking people backpacking is no way to start an invincible financial empire."

[Read: Furloughed Workers Feel the Financial Pinch.]

So if you're losing your livelihood or significant income in the government shutdown, what should you do? Here are some ideas.

Don't panic. Yes, every friend, family member and personal finance writer tells this to anyone in a bad situation (usually while they try to think of some useful advice), but there's a good reason not to freak out. First, the government shutdown may not last long; this could be a brief vacation of sorts for you.

Secondly, "making sudden financial moves based on fear and emotion usually leads to poor decisions," says Brent Pittman, a Los Angeles-based personal finance coach and blogger who writes OnTargetCoach.com.

And this isn't the time to raid your retirement account or take out a loan just yet, Pittman says, especially if it turns out that this shutdown is brief.

Long before you go that route, Pittman suggests taking inventory and looking at your emergency savings (assuming you have some) and considering what possessions you might be able to sell if you need to. In other words, if you're at all concerned, it might be time to have that garage sale you've put off for years. It's worth considering even if your bank account looks healthy for months to come. You could be productive and pad your account.

But whatever you do – whether it's collecting aluminum cans or enjoying a staycation – this is a chance to think strategically about your plan of action if things do go badly.

Get a little mad. Email or call your congressperson or the White House and explain that you aren't pleased that the shutdown is affecting you. You can find contact information by going to the following websites:

www.house.gov/representatives/find

www.senate.gov/reference/common/faq/How_to_contact_senators.htm

www.whitehouse.gov/contact/write-or-call#write

Do the obvious. In other words, this isn't the time to schedule an expensive getaway to Europe. If the shutdown lasts longer than a week and doesn't appear to be reaching a resolution soon, people "would need to behave just like the laid-off workers from our recent recession," says Mac Clouse, a professor of finance at the University of Denver. "Cut back on the discretionary spending, especially things like entertainment, luxury items, unnecessary car trips, high-priced food items and so on. Belt-tightening will be required."

[See: 10 Ways to Cut Your Spending This Week.]

Don't get a part-time job just yet. After all, you still have a job, and maybe you're in the position of working full-time but knowing your paycheck may be delayed. In any case, if you aren't working, check with your employer to see if working elsewhere temporarily will get you in hot water.