BY MICHELLE MERLIN
---- — TRAVERSE CITY — Claire Martin worked full-time for the last two weeks, but her latest paycheck was only about $260.
Martin is a member of AmeriCorps Vista, a national service program that aims to fight poverty by matching volunteers with nonprofit groups. Volunteers are supposed to be able to empathize with the poor they’re trying to help, so are paid a small stipend to keep them right around the poverty line.
Part of the deal is that no participants can take on outside work. In return, Vista members are eligible for an award of $5,550 to pay for additional schooling or to pay off student loans.
But the federal government shutdown is creating anxiety among Martin and 13 other VISTAs working at Traverse City nonprofit SEEDS. This pay period, they’re only able to receive 64 percent of their already meager paycheck.
Until Thursday, they believed they wouldn’t be paid at all.
“We’re one of the only government workers right now who are still having to work but aren’t getting paid,” said Martin.
Martin and other Americorp VISTAs at SEEDS help plan and orchestrate programs across northern Michigan that help school children learn about sustainable practices.
Martin is trying to cut back on her expenses and cancelled a trip to visit her family this weekend because she can’t afford the gas money.
One of her co-workers, Paige Galbraith, struggles to pay her rent. She’s trying to move and can’t scrape together enough money for the security deposit.
“It would have been nice if (the government) had some kind of deal where if you weren’t getting paid and were allowed to work they would make it where if you didn’t pay rent on time you wouldn’t be charged late fees,” said Galbraith. “There’s nothing that protects us.”
Communication between AmeriCorps VISTA and its members has been minimal, resulting in even more stress.
VISTA members received a cryptic email at the beginning of the month that warned they may not be paid at all, but were still prohibited from taking another job.
“The lapse in federal appropriations does not directly affect your status as an AmeriCorps VISTA. The goals of your service are unchanged and all terms, conditions, and benefits remain in place,” the email stated. “You are expected to continue your service and will continue to accrue your living allowance, but you will receive payment of your living allowance retroactively once an appropriations measure has been enacted. Other benefits, such as health coverage and Education Award accrual, remain unaffected.”
Members learned on Thursday they will receive a portion of their pay.
“The stress alone of not knowing what will happen next or when to expect an answer can be pretty impactful, especially for folks living at the margins,” said Sarna Salzman, SEEDS executive director. “We’ve spent time attempting to allay potential and real concerns from our VISTA members, hours that would be better invested focusing on the young people we are here to serve.”
Some salary is better than none, VISTA members agree, but it hasn’t alleviated their bill-paying anxiety.
“It helps a little, but that’s not enough to live off of,” said Galbraith.
“I’ve learned that I can’t really rely too much on the government,” said Martin. “We’re here to help them, and they’re not helping us out at all.”