Furloughed Workers Nationwide Feel the Pain of Congressional Gridlock
Public servants share stories of what citizens are missing during the shutdown.
The government shutdown that goes into its second week on Tuesday—unless Congress reaches agreement by Monday night on a stopgap spending bill—has more than 800,000 federal workers around the country out of work, out of a paycheck, and out of patience. While the work stoppage continues, National Journal Daily will ask some of those public servants to share stories of what they and all Americans are missing without their government at full strength.
Remember Our Motto, Congress
While Congress continues working to try to end the government shutdown, Sheila Bailey wishes she had that opportunity. "I'm ready to get back to work; I'm tired of housework," she said. "Going to work is a lot more fun than doing laundry."
Bailey's job—when she's not furloughed—is actually fun: She experiments on solar power for NASA's Glenn Research Center in Cleveland. Her latest project? Working on a space solar-cell array to power satellites and, perhaps someday, planetary bases.
"It's illegal for me to work [during the shutdown], so I brought home some wonderful, entertaining literature," Bailey said. Her reading material just so happened to include "quite a few papers" on solar power. Laughing, she imagined a potential headline: "Lady Criminally Prosecuted for Taking Home Photovoltaic Literature."
This isn't Bailey's first go-around with a government shutdown: The 28-year NASA veteran was furloughed in 1995 as well. The difference? "There was less surprise this time," she said. "Perhaps there was more of a shock in '95 that this could happen."
Today's gridlocked Congress, she said, made the current shutdown less of a blindside. "It seems like a pretty dysfunctional group of people," Bailey said. NASA funding cuts over the years have caused her to follow politics closely as decisions in Washington affect her own workplace. She has seen staff in her research department cut in half since she started.
Did Congress consider people like her before it went into shutdown mode? Bailey laughed loudly. "Oh, I'm certainly forgotten in that mix," she said.
As a scientist, Bailey said the actions of Congress are baffling to her. "I'm very used to following the laws of physics," she said. "Apparently the laws of politics seem to be this mystical, ever-changing subset."
Though her current frustrations are high, the shutdown isn't the start of her beef with Congress. "It's endemic of the stupidity that's running rampant over there," she said. The "short-sighted" government has made cuts to important programs—like hers—without thinking of the consequences.
"There needs to be a vigorous reinvestment of the research and development part of our country's assets," Bailey said. "They can't seem to get beyond their constituencies and look at the big picture."
She's not optimistic the shutdown will be resolved soon, either. "I'm expecting them, idiots that they are, that it will go down to the wire for the debt ceiling," Bailey said. "I hope I'm wrong."
So what would she tell the politicians that have her on furlough? "I'd try to remind them of our motto: E pluribus unum. Out of many, one," Bailey said. "Can they not get that together?"
Nonstarter in the Senate
Samantha Williams, 25, was scheduled to begin work as a proctor with the Senate Page Program on Monday, but received word last week that her start date would be delayed indefinitely as a result of the government shutdown. She had planned to move to Washington last Friday, but now will remain in Arkansas, where she has worked for the past year and a half as an outreach and events coordinator for Gov. Mike Beebe.
For now, Williams is in a sort of purgatory—hired, but not officially on the federal employment rolls. "I'm very lucky in that unlike most other furloughed employees, I am able to keep my job until the shutdown's over," Williams said last week. "So I will be staying on with the governor until the page program calls and says the shutdown is over, and we will be able to hire you."
Williams will be provided with housing through her new job—she will oversee the Senate pages in their dormitory in Washington. She recognizes that she is fortunate in this respect, not having to face the prospect of relocating—and finding a home—without income.
Of the shutdown, Williams says that based on news reports, "I don't think anybody at this point has any idea when it's going to end," including lawmakers. She is hopeful that Congress will reach agreement on funding the government before Oct. 17, when Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew has said the country will reach the debt ceiling.
Let Them Eat Cake
On day one of the government shutdown, Juri Schauermann made a red velvet cake with cream-cheese frosting.
On day two, the NASA employee caught up on Dexter, a Showtime drama about a homicidal forensic scientist. "That day went by so fast," she said.
On day three, she went to the casino with another furloughed friend. "I did really well."
In short, the shutdown has been like a "surprise vacation," Schauermann says. "I'm not restless at all … although I do wonder if I'll get paid eventually. My husband is a NASA contractor, so I'm pretty sure he won't be."
Like Schauermann, many of her colleagues at NASA are nonplussed. "I went in on Monday to accept my furlough notice and fill in my time sheet. No one there really cared about the shutdown; no one had much of an opinion." The lone exception was one of her superiors, who had been looking forward to residing his house but was required to come in. "He was mad."
Schauermann, 39, attended Johns Hopkins University and has worked at NASA for the last 18 years. She lives outside Washington, in Maryland.
Christopher Snow Hopkins