The collateral damage of the Congressional healthcare stalemate included the defunding of social service programs like WIC, the closure of national parks, and an involuntary and unpaid vacation for some 800,000 U.S. federal employees.
Some must still report for work not knowing if they will be paid for their time, or when. Many of them are your neighbors and friends, maybe even family members.
Patch reached out to local men and women working for the federal government to hear some first-hand accounts of the impact of the shutdown on their lives.
Among their observations: feeling like political pawns, worrying about their families' financial security, and the inescapable notion that the American public was more upset about the NFL lockout and replacement referees than about the interruption in public services.
'Furlough without pay'
“I am one of the lucky federal employees,” said Collingswood resident Rob Burrough, an inspector with the U.S. Department of Transportation, Office of Pipeline Safety, in an e-mail.
“My position has been determined to be ‘excepted’ because I perform emergency work involving the safety of human life or the protection of property,” he said.
Federal workers whose positions are deemed “essential” have been forced to report to work as normal during the shutdown, but they’re uncertain as to whether they’ll be paid for the time.
Burrough believes he will be paid, eventually—but not before the support staff in his office, including those in IT, human resources,
and payroll, are allowed to return to work as well.
“If the shutdown extends past a week, the next paycheck will be delayed,” Burrough said.
“This makes things stressful and tense for many families in this situation, living paycheck to paycheck in order to pay a mortgage and bills.”
Losing paychecks doesn’t only expose families to the risk of running (deeper) into debt. It can also affect government workers whose jobs require security clearance—one of the qualifiers for which is keeping a good credit rating.
Some levels of clearance also require having no obligation to an employer whose interests could conflict with the requirements of the government job.
So for federal workers whose assignments require them to be on call 24 hours a day, it’s not as simple as taking a second job to pick up the slack.
Another federal employee, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that workplace morale is dreadful.
“There was a secretary in the office who made references to our office being volunteer,” the employee said.
“Stuff like that spreads very quickly. Most federal employees are happy to be there and grateful to have a job, but today was kind of down and out.”
All leave has been revoked during the shutdown. People are canceling long-planned vacations and coming into work visibly ill. Some will lose pay to answer jury summonses.
“I could probably count three people in the office that were sick as hell and really shouldn’t have been in the office,” the source said.
“But you can’t take sick leave and get paid for it.”
Employees who may be exposed to physical risks while on the clock—falling off a ladder, car accidents, etc.—are uncertain whether their workman’s compensation benefits would lapse during a shutdown.
Compounding the impact of the shutdown is the fact that some employees were already to be placed on involuntary furlough after the debt ceiling negotiations.
Some federal workers sidelined by both events may be losing as much as a month’s worth of income or more this y.
“You’ve got employees that were already on leave without pay at the end of the year, and now they’re on another furlough at the beginning of fiscal ’14,” the source said.
“They’ve become a political pawn. I feel bad for the employees that got affected by it last year and now are getting hit with it again.”
And just as national politics have divided the country on the issue, the source said that the same issues have caused rifts within the family.
Some extended relatives are helping to make loan arrangements, if necessary, to help make sure the mortgage gets paid in the event of delayed paychecks.
Others are blasting them for being part of the problem of big government.
“People have such a negative connotation of federal employees and their work ethic and the amount of money that they’re paid, and that we’re all lazy,” the source said.
“I don’t think people realize how much stuff gets provided for them by government: power, water, security, flight control.”
The recent recession has already frozen travel, training, and hiring budgets, the source said. Raises haven’t been on the table in years.
The trade-off of a federal job versus a private-sector job has always been the guarantee of a pension versus an implied earnings cap, the source said, but “people don’t have a sentiment for people being out of work.
“We’ve gotten very lucky in that the four or five years that the economy’s gone down, we haven’t been fearful of losing our jobs.
“[But] nobody is becoming a millionaire.”