Government shutdown becomes longest in U.S. history, enters 'uncharted territory'

Jeff Estes has worked as a federal contractor for 35 years in Cape Canaveral, Florida. Now he and his colleagues are out of work because of a partial government shutdown that as of Saturday became the longest in American history.

For Estes, a union official and electrician, the shutdown is becoming particularly burdensome because he’s paying for his two kids to attend college, and the government’s recent decision to change contractors forced him and his coworkers to reapply for their jobs.

With much of the government at a standstill, Estes and his colleagues aren't sure whether they will still have a job when it's over, he said. Those in a position to know are furloughed, leaving Estes and many others more than frustrated as the government shutdown enters its 22nd day on Saturday.

“It’s not a D problem. It’s not an R problem. It’s Washington, D.C., the Beltway,” Estes told NBC News. “People in America and the workforce should not be used as pawns. Deal with your business without putting me out of the job. Do your job, and I’ll keep doing mine.”

Approximately 800,000 federal employees are estimated to be furloughed or working without pay because President Donald Trump and Congress cannot reach a deal to reopen the government. They are at an impasse over $5.7 billion for construction of a wall along the southern border.

The number of furloughed employees does not include federal contractors like Estes. It’s unclear how many contract or grant employees are affected by the shutdown — or even how many there are in total — but a Volcker Alliance report estimated that nearly 5.3 million worked as contractors in 2015.

Unlike furloughed federal employees, who have received assurances that they will be paid once the shutdown ends, contractors are not owed back pay. That has left them in an even murkier economic position.

Most Americans cannot afford to miss a paycheck, said Joseph Stiglitz, an economics professor at Columbia University whose work relating to inequality earned him the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics.

While everyone tends to have a house, car, health insurance and car payment to make, the person they owe money to aren’t inclined to be particularly forgiving or account for a government shutdown, Stiglitz said.

“It’s an inequality issue in that it affects people at the bottom,” Stiglitz said. “And it hits them really strongly because in America, so many have experienced such high levels of inequality that a large fraction of Americans have no substantial cash reserves. They depend on that paycheck coming in every month.”

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said she knows the shutdown is having a significant impact on her state, telling NBC News that she has spoken to a number of constituents since the shutdown took effect.

Her state is feeling the economic pain from the ongoing political fight more than most. Alaska has the most federal workers affected per capita than any other state, and nearly half the federal workers there work for agencies without appropriations.

“They're the ones who are trying to knit this all together, that are trying to figure out, ‘OK, we've got earthquake damage that we're dealing with and it's costing us more than we thought it was going to,” Murkowski said. “It's cold. It's four below in Fairbanks, where I went to high school, this morning. You don't think that jacks up people's home heating like sky high?”

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A visitor looks though a closed entrance door to Federal Hall, due to the partial government shutdown, across from the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) in New York, U.S., on Monday, Jan. 7, 2019. U.S. stocks climbed following last week's rally with investors piling into small-capitalization stocks amid the resumption of trade talks with China. Photographer: Michael Nagle/Bloomberg via Getty Images
UNITED STATES - JANUARY 7: Tourists walk past a sign announces that the National Gallery of Art is closed due to the partial government shut down on Monday, Jan. 7, 2019. The standoff between President Trump and Congress over a spending package to fund nine government agencies reached its 17th day Monday, making this shut down the third-longest on record. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 07: A sign explaining that areas near the National Gallery of Art are closed due to a partial shutdown of the U.S. government is seen, on January 7, 2019 in Washington, DC. The government shutdown is going into its third week with Congressional Democrats and Republicans at a stalemate on a bipartisan solution to President Donald Trump's demands for more money to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - JANUARY 7: A sign announces that the National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden and ice rink are closed due to the partial government shut down on Monday, Jan. 7, 2019. The standoff between President Trump and Congress over a spending package to fund nine government agencies reached its 17th day Monday, making this shut down the third-longest on record. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 07: Restrooms at East Potomac Park are closed due to a partial shutdown of the U.S. government, on January 7, 2019 in Washington, DC. The government shutdown is going into its third week with Congressional Democrats and Republicans at a stalemate on a bipartisan solution to President Donald Trump's demands for more money to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 07: The road that leads to Hains Point at East Potomac Park is closed due to a partial shutdown of the U.S. government, on January 7, 2019 in Washington, DC. The government shutdown is going into its third week with Congressional Democrats and Republicans at a stalemate on a bipartisan solution to President Donald Trump's demands for more money to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
US President Donald Trump speaks to the media as he arrives at the White House in Washington, DC, on January 6, 2019, after meetings at Camp David. - US President Donald Trump stood firm Sunday on his demand for billions of dollars to fund a border wall with Mexico, claiming 'tremendous' support inside his camp on the contentious issue which has forced a government shutdown now entering its third week.'We have to build the wall,' Trump told reporters as he left the White House for the Camp David presidential retreat. 'It's about safety, it's about security for our country. (Photo by Jim WATSON / AFP) (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
US President Donald Trump speaks to the media as he arrives at the White House in Washington, DC, on January 6, 2019, after meetings at Camp David. - US President Donald Trump stood firm Sunday on his demand for billions of dollars to fund a border wall with Mexico, claiming 'tremendous' support inside his camp on the contentious issue which has forced a government shutdown now entering its third week.'We have to build the wall,' Trump told reporters as he left the White House for the Camp David presidential retreat. 'It's about safety, it's about security for our country. (Photo by Jim WATSON / AFP) (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
US President Donald Trump speaks to the media as he arrives at the White House in Washington, DC, on January 6, 2019, after meetings at Camp David. - US President Donald Trump stood firm Sunday on his demand for billions of dollars to fund a border wall with Mexico, claiming 'tremendous' support inside his camp on the contentious issue which has forced a government shutdown now entering its third week.'We have to build the wall,' Trump told reporters as he left the White House for the Camp David presidential retreat. 'It's about safety, it's about security for our country. (Photo by Jim WATSON / AFP) (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
TOPSHOT - US President Donald Trump speaks as he arrives at the White House in Washington, DC, on January 6, 2019, after meetings at Camp David. - US President Donald Trump stood firm Sunday on his demand for billions of dollars to fund a border wall with Mexico, claiming 'tremendous' support inside his camp on the contentious issue which has forced a government shutdown now entering its third week.'We have to build the wall,' Trump told reporters as he left the White House for the Camp David presidential retreat. 'It's about safety, it's about security for our country. (Photo by Jim WATSON / AFP) (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
Transportation Security Administration officers (TSA) stand screen passengers at the departure area of the Los Angeles International Airport in Los Angeles, California, on 5 January, 2019. - TSA staff are taking sick leave in record numbers since the partial government shutdown forced them to work without pay from December 22, 2018. Shortly after the new Congress was sworn in on January 4, 2019, the House approved legislation to fund homeland security operations until February 8 and several other agencies through September -- but no money for a wall. Trump has said he would veto any bill that does not include funding for the barrier and the Republican-run Senate has said it would not consider anything that does not pass muster with the president. (Photo by Mark RALSTON / AFP) (Photo credit should read MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images)
Transportation Security Administration officers (TSA) stand screen passengers at the departure area of the Los Angeles International Airport in Los Angeles, California, on 5 January, 2019. - TSA staff are taking sick leave in record numbers since the partial government shutdown forced them to work without pay from December 22, 2018. Shortly after the new Congress was sworn in on January 4, 2019, the House approved legislation to fund homeland security operations until February 8 and several other agencies through September -- but no money for a wall. Trump has said he would veto any bill that does not include funding for the barrier and the Republican-run Senate has said it would not consider anything that does not pass muster with the president. (Photo by Mark RALSTON / AFP) (Photo credit should read MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images)
Transportation Security Administration officers (TSA) stand on duty at the departure area of the Los Angeles International Airport in Los Angeles, California, on 5 January, 2019. - TSA staff are taking sick leave in record numbers since the partial government shutdown forced them to work without pay began on Deember 22, 2018. Shortly after the new Congress was sworn in on Thursday, the House approved legislation to fund homeland security operations until February 8 and several other agencies through September -- but no money for a wall. Trump has said he would veto any bill that does not include funding for the barrier and the Republican-run Senate has said it would not consider anything that does not pass muster with the president. (Photo by Mark RALSTON / AFP) (Photo credit should read MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images)
A US Coast Guard vessel patrols New York Harbor waters off Battery Park on January 5, 2019, in New York, as the US government shutdown enters its third week. - While most of the US military is unaffected, about 42,000 Coast Guard members are working without pay. That branch falls under the Department of Homeland Security, not the Pentagon. (Photo by DON EMMERT / AFP) (Photo credit should read DON EMMERT/AFP/Getty Images)
JOSHUA TREE NATIONAL PARK, CA - JANUARY 04: Volunteers Alexandra (R) and Ruth Degen prepare to clean a restroom at Joshua Tree National Park on January 4, 2019 in Joshua Tree National Park, California. Volunteers with 'Friends of Joshua Tree National Park' have been cleaning bathrooms and trash at the park as the park is drastically understaffed during the partial government shutdown. Campgrounds and some roads have been closed at the park due to safety concerns. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
JOSHUA TREE NATIONAL PARK, CA - JANUARY 04: Volunteer Alexandra Degen cleans a restroom at Joshua Tree National Park on January 4, 2019 in Joshua Tree National Park, California. Volunteers with 'Friends of Joshua Tree National Park' have been cleaning bathrooms and trash at the park as the park is drastically understaffed during the partial government shutdown. Campgrounds and some roads have been closed at the park due to safety concerns. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 04: U.S. President Donald Trump (R) speaks as he joined by Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) (L) in the Rose Garden of the White House on January 4, 2019 in Washington, DC. Trump hosted both Democratic and Republican lawmakers at the White House for the second meeting in three days as the government shutdown heads into its third week. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 04: U.S. President Donald Trump is joined by Vice President Mike Pence while speaking to the media after a meeting with Congressional leaders about ending the partial government shutdown, in the Rose Garden at the White House on January 4, 2019 in Washington, DC. The U.S government is going into the 13th day of a partial shutdown with Republicans and Democrats at odds on agreeing with President Donald Trump's demands for more money to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
US President Donald Trump addresses a press conference in the Rose Garden of the White House following a meeting with Congressional leaders on the government shutdown, January 4, 2019 in Washington, DC. - Trump said he was prepared to keep the US government closed for a year or more, as he stood firm on his contentious demand for billions of dollars to fund a border wall with Mexico. (Photo by SAUL LOEB / AFP) (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
JOSHUA TREE NATIONAL PARK, CA - JANUARY 04: A sign placed by staff is posted on a temporary barricade at a closed campground at Joshua Tree National Park on January 4, 2019 in Joshua Tree National Park, California. Campgrounds and some roads have been closed at the park due to safety concerns as the park is drastically understaffed during the partial government shutdown. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
A crew from junk removal company 1-800-Got-Junk clears garbage which has been uncollected due to the federal government shutdown, from the Ellipse, a public area south of the White House, January 4, 2019. The shutdown is in its 14th day as newly appointed Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and other Congressional leaders will be meeting with President Donald Trump at the White House. (Photo by Michael Candelori/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
A sign and a padlock on the door of the Ellipse VIsitor Center south of the White House explain that the facility and the National Christmas Tree site is closed due to the federal government shutdown, in its' 14th day, January 4, 2019. (Photo by Michael Candelori/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
MAMMOTH, WY - JANUARY 3: Visitors board a snow coach for the Old Faithful Snowlodge on January 3, 2019 in Mammoth, Wyoming. Non-Emergency services in Yellowstone National Park have been suspended during the current government shutdown. Xanterra, a private concessionaire in Yellowstone, is paying for grooming of the roads to their lodge at Old Faithful. Xanterra is also helping stock and clean park restrooms during the shutdown. (Photo by William Campbell/Corbis via Getty Images)
YELLOWSTONE, WY - JANUARY 3: A family visits the Terraces Mammoth Hot Springs at Yellowstone National Park on January 3, 2019 in Yellowstone, Wyoming. Non-Emergency services in Yellowstone National Park have been suspended during the current government shutdown. Visitors are still allowed access to the parks attractions but services are limited. (Photo by William Campbell/Corbis via Getty Images)
YELLOWSTONE, WY - JANUARY 3: The parking lot and changing area at Boiling River is closed on January 3, 2019 in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming. While visitors can still access the river, non-emergency services in Yellowstone National Park have been suspended during the current government shutdown. (Photo by William Campbell/Corbis via Getty Images)
YELLOWSTONE, WY - JANUARY 3: The Visitor Center, typically crowded with guests and tourists, is closed on January 3, 2019 Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming. Non-Emergency services in Yellowstone National Park have been suspended during the current government shutdown. (Photo by William Campbell/Corbis via Getty Images)
GARDINER, MT - JANUARY 3: A car drives through the northern entrance to Yellowstone National Park on January 3, 2019 in Gardiner, Montana. Pay stations at the park entrances is currently unstaffed, as non-emergency services in Yellowstone National Park have been suspended during the current government shutdown, and visitors can enter the park without paying fees. (Photo by William Campbell/Corbis via Getty Images)
GARDINER, MT - JANUARY 3: A car drives through the northern entrance to Yellowstone National Park on January 3, 2019 in Gardiner, Montana. Pay stations at the park entrances is currently unstaffed, as non-emergency services in Yellowstone National Park have been suspended during the current government shutdown, and visitors can enter the park without paying fees. (Photo by William Campbell/Corbis via Getty Images)
Signs placed by staff at a closed campground in the Joshua Tree National Park after the federal government's partial shutdown caused park rangers to stay home and campgrounds to be shut, at the park in California on January 3, 2019. - US President Donald Trump warned the US federal government may not fully reopen any time soon, as he stood firm on his demand for billions of dollars in funding for a border wall with Mexico. (Photo by Mark RALSTON / AFP) (Photo credit should read MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images)
TOPSHOT - A closed and blocked campground (L) at the Joshua Tree National Park after the federal government's partial shutdown caused park rangers to stay home and campgrounds to be shut, at the park in California on January 3, 2019. - US President Donald Trump warned the US federal government may not fully reopen any time soon, as he stood firm on his demand for billions of dollars in funding for a border wall with Mexico. (Photo by Mark RALSTON / AFP) (Photo credit should read MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images)
Tourists drive past the closed entrance ticket station of the Joshua Tree National Park after the federal government's partial shutdown caused park rangers to stay home and campgrounds to be shut, at the park in California, on January 3, 2019. - US President Donald Trump warned the US federal government may not fully reopen any time soon, as he stood firm on his demand for billions of dollars in funding for a border wall with Mexico. (Photo by Mark RALSTON / AFP) (Photo credit should read MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images)
Pedestrians walk beyond a sign announcing national park closure due to a government shutdown next to a 'Road Closed' sign at the entrance to Fort Point in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area in San Francisco, California, U.S., on Wednesday, Jan. 2, 2019. Congressional leaders were unable to strike a deal to end a partial shutdown of the federal government at a meeting with Donald Trump on Wednesday, and the president invited them to return to the White House on Friday for further negotiations. Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images
A cyclist takes a photograph while sitting next to a sign announcing national park closure due to a government shutdown and a 'Road Closed' sign at the entrance to Fort Point in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area in San Francisco, California, U.S., on Wednesday, Jan. 2, 2019. Congressional leaders were unable to strike a deal to end a partial shutdown of the federal government at a meeting with Donald Trump on Wednesday, and the president invited them to return to the White House on Friday for further negotiations. Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images
A man uses a smartphone to take a selfie photograph while standing next to a sign announcing national park closure due to a government shutdown and a 'Road Closed' sign at the entrance to Fort Point in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area in San Francisco, California, U.S., on Wednesday, Jan. 2, 2019. Congressional leaders were unable to strike a deal to end a partial shutdown of the federal government at a meeting with Donald Trump on Wednesday, and the president invited them to return to the White House on Friday for further negotiations. Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images
WASHINGTON, Jan. 2, 2019 -- People stand in front of the closed doors of the Smithsonian Institution Building's visitor center in Washington D.C., the United States, on Jan. 2, 2019. The 19 Smithsonian museums and the National Zoo in Washington D.C. closed their doors on Wednesday as the partial U.S. government shutdown dragged on.?(Xinhua/Liu Jie) (Xinhua/Liu Jie via Getty Images)
Full garbage cans sit at Golden Gate National Recreation Park in San Francisco, California, U.S., on Wednesday, Jan. 2, 2019. Congressional leaders were unable to strike a deal to end a partial shutdown of the federal government at a meeting with Donald Trump on Wednesday, and the president invited them to return to the White House on Friday for further negotiations. Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Garbage sits in a parking lot at Golden Gate National Recreation Park in San Francisco, California, U.S., on Wednesday, Jan. 2, 2019. Congressional leaders were unable to strike a deal to end a partial shutdown of the federal government at a meeting with Donald Trump on Wednesday, and the president invited them to return to the White House on Friday for further negotiations. Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Full garbage cans sit at Golden Gate National Recreation Park in San Francisco, California, U.S., on Wednesday, Jan. 2, 2019. Congressional leaders were unable to strike a deal to end a partial shutdown of the federal government at a meeting with Donald Trump on Wednesday, and the president invited them to return to the White House on Friday for further negotiations. Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Full garbage cans sit at Golden Gate National Recreation Park in San Francisco, California, U.S., on Wednesday, Jan. 2, 2019. Congressional leaders were unable to strike a deal to end a partial shutdown of the federal government at a meeting with Donald Trump on Wednesday, and the president invited them to return to the White House on Friday for further negotiations. Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Visitors walk past full garbage cans at Golden Gate National Recreation Park in San Francisco, California, U.S., on Wednesday, Jan. 2, 2019. Congressional leaders were unable to strike a deal to end a partial shutdown of the federal government at a meeting with Donald Trump on Wednesday, and the president invited them to return to the White House on Friday for further negotiations. Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Full garbage cans sit at Golden Gate National Recreation Park in San Francisco, California, U.S., on Wednesday, Jan. 2, 2019. Congressional leaders were unable to strike a deal to end a partial shutdown of the federal government at a meeting with Donald Trump on Wednesday, and the president invited them to return to the White House on Friday for further negotiations. Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images
NEW YORK, NEW YORK - JANUARY 02: A sign informs visitors of the closing of Federal Hall as the partial government shutdown continues on January 02, 2019 in New York City. As President Donald Trump continues to insist on money to build a wall along the Southern border of the United States, the partial government shutdown and the standoff with Democrats continues. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
The White House is seen in the background, as trash lays uncollected on the National Mall due to the partial shutdown of the US government on January 2, 2019 in Washington, DC. - President Donald Trump warned Wednesday the US federal government may not fully reopen any time soon, as he stood firm on his demand for billions of dollars in funding for a border wall with Mexico. Addressing a cabinet meeting on the 12th day of the partial shutdown, Trump warned it 'could be a long time' before the impasse is resolved. (Photo by Andrew Caballero-Reynolds / AFP) (Photo credit should read ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP/Getty Images)
The White House is seen in the background as people bike past trash uncollected on the National Mall, due to the partial shutdown of the US government on January 2, 2019 in Washington, DC. - President Donald Trump warned Wednesday the US federal government may not fully reopen any time soon, as he stood firm on his demand for billions of dollars in funding for a border wall with Mexico. Addressing a cabinet meeting on the 12th day of the partial shutdown, Trump warned it 'could be a long time' before the impasse is resolved. (Photo by Andrew Caballero-Reynolds / AFP) (Photo credit should read ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP/Getty Images)
A young girl reads a sign posted on the door of The National Museum of African American History stating that all Smithsonian Museums are closed due to the partial shutdown of the US government on January 2, 2019 in Washington, DC. - President Donald Trump warned Wednesday the US federal government may not fully reopen any time soon, as he stood firm on his demand for billions of dollars in funding for a border wall with Mexico. Addressing a cabinet meeting on the 12th day of the partial shutdown, Trump warned it 'could be a long time' before the impasse is resolved. (Photo by Andrew Caballero-Reynolds / AFP) (Photo credit should read ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP/Getty Images)
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That could be a reason for economic concern beyond just the individual household, particularly in small communities where businesses are dependent on those individuals spending their paychecks.

“When individuals are living as close to the edge as such a large fraction of Americans are living, these are the kinds of events that can precipitate a downward spiral,” Stiglitz said.

The shutdown isn’t affecting only labor, either.

  • National parks are being impacted by trash that isn’t picked up and bathrooms that are overflowing with human waste.
  • Unpaid Transportation Security Administration workers, who maintain security checkpoints at airports, are calling out sick at record numbers.
  • Approximately 42,000 active-duty members of the Coast Guard continue to work without pay.  
  • More than 1,000 federal subsidy contracts made with Section 8 housing landlords have been left to expire, which has left poor families at risk of eviction.
  • Around 38 million Americans who rely on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, known as SNAP or food stamps, could lose the benefit after February.
  • There are concerns that the Internal Revenue Service could struggle to process the millions of tax returns that will be filed later this month.
  • And as the shutdown continues further without a clear potential conclusion after the president threatened to keep the government closed for months or even years, experts say the economic ripple effects could heavily impact the entire nation.

Jason Furman, professor of the practice of economic policy at Harvard Kennedy School and the most recent chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers under President Obama, said the nation is “entering increasingly uncharted territory.”

“The impact really depends heavily on how the highly ambiguous rules are interpreted and implemented by the administration, for example the decisions around SNAP and refund checks matter a lot,” Furman said in an email. “Overall, however, we know that the costs of the shutdown grow non-linearly with time as agencies run out of ways to get around it. So expect them [agency costs] to grow.”

It’s the uncertainty that leaves a lot of experts worried about the economic impact that a prolonged shutdown could have, especially during a period of global market uncertainty.

Currently the country faces a trade war, stock market uncertainty, an economic slowdown in China and an economic slowdown in Europe — two key trading partners.

“No time is a good time, but this is a particularly bad time because the nature of uncertainty is that it compounds exponentially,” Stiglitz said.

“We’re talking about $5.7 billion for a wall,” the economist added, “but the costs that are inflicted on the economy are orders of magnitude beyond that $5.7 billion.”

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