Protesters display placards Tuesday during a demonstration in front of the Capitol in Washington, D.C., urging Congress to pass a budget bill. The federal government shut down for the first time in 17 years after a gridlocked Congress failed to reach a budget deal amid bitter brinkmanship, and some 800,000 federal workers have been furloughed. (Jewel Samad / AFP via Getty Images)
When Rob Merritt reported to work Tuesday at the Army’s Aberdeen Proving Ground he thought he would be sent home — but was instead told he would stay on for another week.
That is how long his division’s fiscal 2013 funding will last until they have to begin furloughing workers, according to Merritt, who works as an IT officer.
He said the six furlough days he has already taken in 2013 and an open-heart surgery earlier in the year have driven his family — including his four children — to the brink of insolvency.
“If there is a significant shutdown of a couple of weeks we would have to file for bankruptcy.
The lapse in appropriations has thrown federal employees’ finances into chaos and damaged their faith in public service, according to interviews with federal employees.
Although the Office of Management and Budget has not said publicly how many employees are now furloughed, federal labor unions peg the number at around 800,000, or about 40 percent of the total workforce. The rest, because their jobs are deemed necessary to protect life or property or some other critical function, are still coming to work, but with the exception of some Defense Department employees will not see a paycheck until after the shutdown ends.
The distinction is a touchy one; some agency leaders have stressed that all employees do a valuable job.
“And if there is one thing that I ask you to understand — in a completely incomprehensible situation — it is that each and every one of you does important work,” National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis said in a message to employees. “Being excepted or un-excepted has nothing to do with your value to this organization or our critical mission.”
Merritt said the lack of pay raises over the last few years, furloughs and the constant uncertainty involving annual budgets has made it much harder to appreciate public service. Since 2011, lawmakers have repeatedly pushed the government to the brink of crisis, only to reach a deal at the last moment.
“It hasn’t just been one or two times, it’s been three years of nothing but rainy days,” Merritt said. That has pushed him to consider jobs in the private sector or as a contractor, he added.
He placed the blame for the shutdown on a “small minority of politicians who are unwilling to negotiate.”
On a normal Tuesday, Liz Gibson wouldn’t have been leaving work at noon to grab a bus from her office back to her Baltimore home. But as the Federal Emergency Management Agency employee faced the very abnormal prospect of an indefinite unpaid furlough, she had plenty of time to ponder why she was out of work because lawmakers had failed to do their job.
“I’m just mad,” Gibson said as she waited on a downtown Washington street, glancing toward Capitol Hill.
Federal workers are “tired of being treated like ping pong balls, batted around and bounced back and forth,” she added. “It seems like every week there’s a new threat.”
Pete Randazzo, an IT specialist at the Naval Post Graduate school in Monterey, Calif., said he and his wife were both furloughed Tuesday, along with most of the 1,500 civilians they work with.
“If Congress was trying to deal another blow to federal employee morale, they have succeeded,” he said.
He and his wife are both three years from retirement and still recovering from the furlough days they had to take in fiscal 2013. He added that many people he works with are afraid of how long a shutdown might last.
“There are a whole bunch of people who are so scared right now,” he said.
Natalie Burgess, a senior contracting officer with the Federal Aviation Administration, thought this clash would turn out to be a false alarm, too. Like Gibson, however, she had come to work Tuesday only to set an out-of-office voicemail message and take other steps associated with an “orderly shutdown” before going home.
“It’s a very sad day for the state of America,” Burgess said.
Nate James, an EPA employee and president of American Federation of Government Employees local 3331, said he and his wife, an Education Department employee, were both facing furloughs.
He said he might be able to last a month but many employees will not be able to do so.
“After a while we are looking at folks being put out of their homes,” he said.
He added that part of the blame rests on a Congress that does not fully understand or appreciate the roles federal employees play in making the country a better place.
“When your drinking water at home starts looking like Coca Cola you are going to realize what a government shutdown can do,” he said.