Fed-worker commuters talk shutdown

September 30, 2013

During Monday morning’s commute, plenty of people in the downtown Washington area seemed to have the shutdown on their minds, and some eagerly talked about it as they rode in on Metro or walked to their offices.

(Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)
(Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)

Some couldn’t give their names because their respective agencies prohibited them from talking to the media or sharing their opinions. Others were concerned their clients would get nervous if they were seen as taking sides or blaming politicians.

At the Gallery Place Metro stop, Emma Bullock – who works as a geologist at the Smithsonian’s Natural History museum –quickly stopped reading her newspaper to share her thoughts on the pending shutdown.

“I think it is ridiculous,” she said. “It is a huge waste of time. The fact that a bunch of politicians are playing chicken with each other is frustrating.”

She said her department of roughly 40 employees at the museum spent several hours over the last week preparing for the shutdown, figuring out who is essential to come in and who is not and which labs they would have to close.

With no children and only two cats, Bullock said she volunteered to come in. Many of her colleagues, she said, told their supervisors they couldn’t come in because the day care center at their job is going to close if there’s a shutdown and they didn’t have – or couldn’t afford – other arrangements for their children.

Bullock said her department has had to deal with how they’ll communicate with each other, given that employees who are not required to come in are not supposed to even check their work e-mails.

“It makes me sad if we have to have a shutdown,” she said. “It’s never the Senate or the House who suffers. They still get paid. They still get benefits. It is the staff and the public who have to deal with it all.”

Who’s at fault for the situation?

“I blame the career politicians,” she said. “If they had to live paycheck to paycheck like most people they’d find it a lot easier to come to an agreement.”

A few blocks from the Smithsonian, one 22-year employee of the Justice Department who said she wasn’t authorized by her department to talk to the media about the shutdown walked quickly to her office. That didn’t stop her from sharing her opinion.

The potential shutdown, she said, is “utterly ridiculous.”

“It is a lot of wasted time,” she said, just before entering the security gates. “I blame the Republicans because they’re holding up the whole country just because they don’t like Obamacare.”

For others, there’s a personal — and financial — impact of the looming shutdown.

At the Friendship Heights Metro stop, Matthew Curry said he was frustrated and worried about the shutdown as he rode to his marketing job in downtown D.C. His mother, he said, would have to pay $400 a day for nursing care service for his 86-year-old grandma whose Medicaid approval status is in limbo because new applicants to the program are not being added with the pending shutdown. As he rode to his office on a Red Line, Curry said if the shutdown goes on for a prolonged period, his mother will likely have to sell his grandmother’s house in Queens and use the proceeds to pay for her care.

“It’s really sad,” he said. “I’ll be angry later. This is exactly what a support network like Medicaid is for. Everything has been politicized. It just shows that getting reelected is more important than the substance of your job.”

Curry said he didn’t understand why Congress wasn’t working “24/7 on trying to make a deal.”

“We all have jobs that when we near a crunch time, you stay later and get it done,” he said. “Congress’ attitude has been ‘we’re going home.’ It’s an insult.”

Joe Green, who runs his own defense contractor firm with 12 people, sat on a Red Line train with his briefcase on his lap and a worried look on his face.

“This really impacts me,” he said of the potential shutdown. He said he’s had to shuffle his employees from contracts with the Pentagon to work with homeland security departments – in hopes those won’t be impacted by the shutdown as defense spending has been in jeopardy.

He said between 50 percent and 75 percent of his business is in limbo as contracts are not being approved with the shutdown pending.

“I see the problem on both sides,” he said.

A middle-aged man in a striped shirt waited for coffee at a French café blocks from the Capitol and pondered the shutdown.

“I understand it from both points of view,” said the man who said he works as a lobbyist for electricity companies but wouldn’t give his name because he said it would upset his clients. “They both have the power and they’re both trying to hold out and win.”

“Obama can’t give in because it is his signature law and Republicans can’t give in because it is very unpopular,” he said of the Affordable Care Act.

Dana Hedgpeth is the Washington Post’s lead reporter in covering the Metro rail and bus systems in the D.C. region and the Washington Metropolitan Transit Authority (WMATA) that runs them.
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