MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Tomorrow, furloughed federal employees will return to work after more than a month off the job. This means they'll be able to see their colleagues, start digging through their inboxes and, of course, start to receive their paychecks. But, as NPR's Rebecca Ellis reports, for some, this return is bittersweet, as federal workers face the possibility of another shutdown in just three weeks.
REBECCA ELLIS, BYLINE: Towanna Thompson is excited for tomorrow.
TOWANNA THOMPSON: I'm ready to go back on Monday. I'm bored, and my family's tired of looking at me.
ELLIS: Thompson is spending her last day out of work with her grandson, picking up lunch and groceries from a food bank run by Jose Andres' World Central Kitchen. The nonprofit has been providing free meals for furloughed employees and their families in downtown D.C. for the last few weeks. She's ready to get back to work tomorrow. But she's also wondering how long she'll be able to stay on in her job as a program analyst for the Department of the Interior. The bill President Donald Trump signed funds the government only through February 15.
THOMPSON: I think it's stupid. Why do you want to open us up for three weeks, and then we have to go back and do this again? You know, Trump needs to wake up and smell the cappuccino.
ELLIS: Thompson says even though the shutdown is over, she's still budgeting. She's getting groceries today at World Central Kitchen. She'll keep going to the library instead of paying for cable or Internet. She's not going to see the doctor.
THOMPSON: I put off some medical procedures elected that I really need. But I'm going to wait for those, you know, just until after three weeks.
ELLIS: This time is for paying people back.
THOMPSON: I've relied on friends and family. You know, now I have to pay back stuff that I begged, borrowed and stole.
ELLIS: She's not the only one here today viewing the shutdown's end with some wariness.
BERNADETTE ARMAND: I'm more cautious than optimistic.
ELLIS: Bernadette Armand (ph) is glad she'll finally be getting paid. But she says she'll still likely need these donations from the kitchen throughout this week, if not longer.
ARMAND: We were - we've been out here sort of working for free for many weeks now. And I think that the government showed that they can sort of get used to that.
ELLIS: Chef Jose Andres, who runs the kitchen, posted a video saying food will be served until this Friday. Though, if the government doesn't stay open, he promises to set up shop once more.
JOSE ANDRES: If for some reason things go wrong again, we will be there for them.
ELLIS: Some federal employees are convinced things will go wrong. Jared Hautamaki is an attorney at the EPA. During the shutdown, he'd been to food banks like Jose Andres' and picked up extra shifts at Home Depot. Tomorrow, he'll return to the EPA. But he's not cutting back on the shifts.
JARED HAUTAMAKI: I plan on working as many hours as I can at Home Depot the next three weeks to prepare for the worst.
ELLIS: Hautamaki is not optimistic that the government will stay open after February 15.
HAUTAMAKI: I'm still budgeting that we're not going to get a check until two weeks from now.
ELLIS: And then another week after that, and...
HAUTAMAKI: We're shut down again.
ELLIS: A lot of federal employees view these three weeks as a chance to pay the bills they've fallen behind on. Tax examining assistant Paul Kiefer had spoken with NPR during the holidays. Back then, he'd been furloughed from the IRS for about a week and was worried about not making his credit card payment.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
PAUL KIEFER: Whether or not I can pay for the electricity, get any food, pay for the rent, whether or not I'm going to be thrown out onto the street.
ELLIS: Last Friday, he realized he'd made it through. He's going to keep his home in Austin, Texas. And he was ecstatic.
KIEFER: First thing that pops into my mind was, hallelujah. I can finally make my payments.
ELLIS: He'd been desperately hoping for this next paycheck.
KIEFER: I didn't have that. I was - it was that - would have been pretty much a death sentence.
ELLIS: Kiefer is diabetic, and on top of everything else, he was running dangerously low on medication. Now he knows he can afford another batch.
KIEFER: So at least I have the opportunity to give myself a little bit of cushion.
ELLIS: For Kiefer, three weeks is good enough.
Rebecca Ellis, NPR News.
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