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Shutdown wreaks havoc on feds

Oct. 7, 2013 - 11:54AM   |  
By ANDY MEDICI and SEAN REILLY   |   Comments

Rob Merritt, an IT manager at the Army’s Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland, is expecting to be furloughed this week because of the government shutdown.

He said the six furlough days he was forced to take this summer 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,” he said.

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 about 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 possible exception of some Defense Department employees, they will not see a paycheck until 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.”

At agencies like the IRS and Environmental Protection Agency, more than 90 percent of employees were sent home, according to their contingency plans. The Merit Systems Protection Board, which was already struggling to manage more than 32,000 appeals stemming from sequester-related furloughs, has ceased all operations because of the shutdown, its website said.

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.

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“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.”

Liz Gibson, a Federal Emergency Management Agency employee who is being furloughed until the end of the shutdown, said she’s upset with Congress for failing to do its job.

“I’m just mad,” Gibson said. “We’re tired of being treated like ping-pong balls, batted around and bounced back and forth,” Gibson said. “It seems like every week, there’s a new threat.”

Pete Randazzo, an IT specialist at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., said he and his wife were both furloughed Oct. 1, 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 this summer. Many people he works with fear the shutdown could stretch out.

“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 last week only to set an out-of-office voicemail message and conduct 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, both face furloughs. He said he might be able to last a month, but many employees won’t.

“After a while, we are looking at folks being put out of their homes,” he said.

James said 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.

Contractors could also feel the sting if the shutdown extends into a second or third week or longer. On Monday, for example, Lockheed Martin began furloughs of some 2,400 employees who work for DoD and various civilian agencies. United Technologies Corp. had also planned to furlough almost 2,000 aerospace workers starting this week because Defense Contract Management Agency inspectors wouldn’t be on hand to oversee manufacturing operations. But on Sunday, the Connecticut-based contractor called off those plans after DoD officials announced that they would put most furloughed employees — including the inspectors — back on the job.

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By a 407-0 vote Saturday, the House also approved legislation to provide back pay to all furloughed government employees; the Senate could vote this week to send the measure to President Obama, who is expected to sign it.

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