I am a federal employee who has been on furlough since the government shutdown began at the beginning of the month. I cannot reveal what agency I work for (and for that reason, my name), but at the request of TSL, I wanted to provide a brief summary of what the shutdown has been like from my perspective. I am going to focus on my own personal experience as opposed to discussing the general political issues, as there are certainly people more informed than I am regarding the politics involved.
In the week leading up to the shutdown, we had several town-hall-style meetings in which our director gave us updates regarding both the chances of a shutdown and what would happen in the event that a continuing resolution was not passed. At the beginning of that week, we were under the impression that we would be declared an essential agency, and would continue to work through any shutdown. As the shutdown drew closer, though, we were instructed that only a small number of personnel would continue to work through a shutdown. This was due to pressure from the Democratic side of the aisle; the Democrats wanted to make sure that if a shutdown took place, it would be fully felt by government workers and the American people.
One of the worst parts about the lead-up to the shutdown was the uncertainty over what a shutdown would entail. There were endless questions over who would be allowed to continue working, if and how we were allowed to communicate with colleagues during the shutdown, whether we were eligible for unemployment benefits, when and how we would receive pay for the work we did over the past week, and countless other issues. During the final town-hall meeting, it was particularly striking when the administrative assistant for my group expressed concern over how he would continue to pay the bills during the shutdown. While I and many of my colleagues live in relative comfort and can go a couple weeks without pay, there are most certainly those out there for whom this shutdown is causing great financial turmoil.
At the end of the day on Monday, Sept. 30, my colleagues and I packed up our stuff and went home, not knowing when we would be called back into the office. It almost didn’t seem real until I woke up on Tuesday morning and was not allowed to go to work. At first, it was kind of fun to skip out on work. There were things to do around the house. A number of establishments in Washington D.C. were doing specials on food and drink for furloughed workers. However, as the furlough has dragged on, the novelty has worn off.
In the second week of the furlough, as I was starting to go stir-crazy, I decided to volunteer on an organic farm about an hour away. Getting away from the city and doing something completely different was incredibly refreshing. I also plan to take a trip to New York City later this week depending on what happens with negotiations on the Hill. These sorts of trips, however, are hard to plan because of the uncertainty of when I will be called back, as well as the fact that no one else is on vacation. Furthermore, these sorts of getaways are not available for my colleagues with families and other complicating factors. It seems like most of my furloughed colleagues are just languishing around the house at this point.
We get semi-daily emails from our director, who is one of the few at the agency continuing to work, updating us on the status of negotiations and answering any questions. The emails always have a somber tinge to them, and I think the few people that have continued to work have found it to be lonely and frustrating. Some of my colleagues have been called in on a temporary basis to do small bits of work, but as soon as the specific piece of work is finished, they return to furloughed status.
Uncertainty remains over when the shutdown will end and over whether or not we will receive back pay for the furlough period. While it seems likely at this point that we will receive back pay (a reminder of the great waste of it all), it is not entirely certain. As far as the end of the shutdown, the optimist and rationalist in me is convinced a deal will be worked out before the debt limit deadline on Thursday, although there are a number of nuances that I do not fully understand, and you never know with this Congress.
I can’t speak for all federal agencies, but the folks at my agency take a lot of pride in the work that we do. The shutdown will no doubt affect the quality of the work we produce for the government over the next year—this is something that it seems like the members of Congress don’t fully understand. The waste produced from this shutdown is immense, and members of Congress are largely insulated from it. I think the level of carelessness and political machismo that has led to this situation is embarrassing for our country, and I hope it can be avoided in the future.