Shutdown Drives Wedge in Federal Workforce

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As Congress wrangles over how to fund the government, federal employees are among the major casualties.

Furloughed workers—there are an estimated 800,000—lose money and gain free time. And they often confront one of the most uncomfortable questions one can face in Washington: Just how important are you?

As one Democratic House staffer put it, “Nothing breeds contempt more than lining people up and saying, ‘I need you and not you.’”

In federal workplaces across the capital, employees are being categorized as either essential or nonessential, those who can stay and those who must go. Congress itself is not immune. The very lawmakers who, locked in a partisan fight over a short-term funding bill, shot past Tuesday’s deadline to pass a budget deal are now themselves being asked to make tough choices.

For instance, Sen. Joe Manchin had his Washington office shrink from 27 to 11 and his West Virginia staff cut from 17 to two. “After lunch we’ll be bare bones,” said Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, whose staff of 30 could fall to as few as four. “Nobody will be there” to answer constituent calls, he said. “They’ll get to hear my message.”

Agencies had been preparing for a while, but the government shutdown still came as a surprise to some. “No one thought it would happen,” said a furloughed Department of Justice employee. “We didn’t start discussing it in detail until Monday.” The formal email asking employees to make preparations to be out of the office Tuesday—including setting up an out-of-office reply—was sent Monday afternoon.

The DOJ employee said he woke up Tuesday morning and watched the news, as staffers had been advised to do, to determine whether to come into the office. “If you’re nonessential, you’re not even allowed to check your [work] BlackBerry,” he said. The concern is that this would be considered volunteer work, which is illegal for those employees who have been furloughed without pay. “You may get an email from your supervisor, but you’re not supposed to look at it.”

As federal employees were sorted by bosses—sometimes publicly—many took comfort in each other, together enduring the first day of the first government shutdown in 17 years. Some, for example, gathered at the Sixth & I Synagogue, a cultural haven in Chinatown, for themed snacks, a West Wing marathon—even games of political ping-pong.

On hand were refugees from Capitol Hill, the Government Accountability Office, and the Departments of Commerce, Defense, Interior, and Labor, as well as some party crashers not on the government payroll. Without exception, these “nonessential” personnel were perplexed by the label.

“There’s no input or reasoning to who’s essential and who’s nonessential,” said one Defense Department employee, who asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to speak to the press.

“It’s kind of ridiculous,” added his cohort, also from Defense. “I’m skeptical of some of the congressional jobs that have been deemed ‘essential.’ ”

Others seemed dazed by the congressional machinations that precipitated the crisis.

“It still feels a bit surreal that this is happening,” said Matthew Gever, a GAO health care analyst. “When the countdown was going on, we all thought, ‘They’ll come up with something.’ I’d prefer to be at work. It’s my job and I like doing it. I’d prefer to be there and not here.”

“Today and tomorrow should be OK because I did some overtime last week,” the DOJ employee said. “But after that it stops being fun and starts being stressful.”

“I would rather be getting paid,” added an official with the Labor Department. “The West Wing does take the sting out. As I’ve said on Facebook, you’ve got to make lemonade out of the situation.”

One Defense employee said his agency was particularly hard hit. He had been told that approximately 50 percent of the department’s employees were furloughed in the fiscal 1996 fights, but this year, he estimated up to 98 percent were sent home.

“We had four hours max this morning to close everything down,” he said. “When people were logging in to download the unemployment form, the server crashed. They later sent us a standard form with the name blacked out. I’m not even sure that will be accepted.”

Nonetheless, the mood was festive at Sixth & I, with a smattering of applause when The West Wing’s President Bartlett made his first appearance on screen. To accommodate the anticipated turnout, a rabbi hauled a leather sofa up several flights of stairs. As communications manager Hannah Orenstein explained, “We chose The West Wing because of the famous shutdown episode.”

By noon, the snacks had begun to disappear as partygoers paused from political ping-pong with the faces of John Boehner, Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, and Mitch McConnell pasted on the paddles—a nod to the legislative volleys between the House and Senate in recent days—to replenish themselves. The smorgasbord included “Legislative-ADE,” “Cinnamon Roll Calls,” and a crate of oranges labeled “John Boehner.”

The Sixth & I Synagogue, which has occupied its current location in the Chinatown neighborhood since 1908, is a magnet for the city’s cultural elite. The synagogue is not just a house of worship, but a secular institution with book signings, concerts, and other cultural events. It derives some of its cachet from the grande dame in the executive suite. Esther Safran Foer is the mother of Jonathan Safran Foer, author of the 2005 novel Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, and Franklin Foer, editor of The New Republic.

“We actually didn’t think we’d get a lot of people,” said Esther Foer, who serves as executive director. “But during Hurricane Sandy, institutions opened their doors, and we thought it’d be a nice thing to do.”

Foer said the idea hit her earlier this week.

“I woke up yesterday morning and said to my husband, ‘You know, the government is shutting down, and we’re a community institution, and we need to do something for our community,’ ” she said. “I sent a memo to the staff at 9:30 a.m. that said, ‘Why don’t we do a shutdown café?’ ”

Clara Ritger and Sophie Novack contributed.

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