An ‘orderly shutdown’: Set your out-of-office e-mail, and don’t forget to water the plants

‘Unfortunately, that day has come.” ¶ Michael Conley stands at the head of a conference room table, surrounded by his agency’s soon-to-be-furloughed staff. He is grave. But also reassuring. Out of the 21 people in this room, he will be the only one reporting for work tomorrow. “The OMB,” he intones, “has put out the direction to put an orderly shutdown in process.” ¶ The government shutdown, in theory, is abstract, ominous, a cantankerous wheeze of congressional incompetence. The government shutdown, in practice, is a tedious process for beleaguered federal employees. It is setting out-of-office messages. It is freezing agency Web sites. It is remembering to take home plants for watering, or squirreling away sensitive information in secure computer folders. It is 800,000 workers, most of whom had nothing to do with Congress’s dispute over the budget, being allotted precisely four hours with which to neatly tie up all their loose ends and then be sent home.

It is sessions like this 9 a.m. staff meeting Tuesday at the Arlington headquarters of the American Battle Monuments Commission. The commission is one of hundreds of federal agencies, large and small, at which nonessential employees clocked out Tuesday. The ABMC is small. It administers 24 overseas military cemeteries and 26 memorials, monuments and markers. (It is in charge of Normandy’s American cemetery, so the shutdown is reaching France.)

Variations of this orderly shutdown occurred all through the Washington area on Tuesday. Preparations were not about working efficiently, but rather about efficiently not working: about checking off the dozens of banal tasks required to halt the U.S. government.

“The HR letters are being final-processed,” says Conley, the ABMC chief of staff. Once they have received their standard-issue furlough letters from Human Resources, once they have set their affairs in order, employees may go. They must go, in fact — everyone at the ABMC except for Conley and the 25-odd memorial superintendents around the world, who will remain on duty to continue basic grounds maintenance, must go. Because the government is closing.

* * *

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This is what an orderly shutdown looks like — the incremental process of stalling cubicle culture. This is how we implement the Antideficiency Act, which prohibits the United States from paying out money before funds have been duly appropriated, which is what got us into this mess to begin with.

At the Navy Personnel Command on South Courthouse Road in Arlington, civilians and military work side by side, cubicle by cubicle, in support jobs with titles such as resource officer, financial management analyst, diversity training officer. As of Tuesday, however, they are no longer on equal footing: All active-duty military personnel have been deemed essential employees, while most of their civilian colleagues are being sent home.

The some-will-stay, some-will-go landscape was creating angst during the orderly shutdown. “I wanted to personally tell you how regretful it is for me to even have to talk to you about this,” Vice Adm. William Moran told his staff at the morning shutdown meeting. “But you know why we’re all here.”

Robert Colston, the deputy comptroller and one of the few civilians who will stay on. because he authorizes spending, watched his smartphone crash in the car on the way to work Tuesday. As soon as he got to the office, he raced from room to room to find assistance before the BlackBerry specialist at the help desk was furloughed. “Before you leave the building,” he told him, “this BlackBerry has to work!”

The cafeteria had closed at 10. Unread e-mails were piling up. Desks were strewn with spreadsheets, audit statements and budget binders, which looked far from orderly.

Over in the office’s budget division, Kathy Repass had already logged off at her desktop PC but had another issue to deal with: the trash. She slung her office waste can’s garbage over her shoulder and headed to the elevators. “I’m just not sure if someone’s going to pick it up,” she said. “And it’s starting to stink.”

There was some confusion as to whether anybody would even be paid for these four hours of work.

And most ominously, in an office dependent on military precision, logistics and know-how, by the morning of the orderly shutdown, there had been no time to devise a new organizational scheme detailing which civilian jobs would be done by military officers. The remaining military staff would be deprived of flow charts.

* * *

The orderly shutdown means coming into work, business as usual, even when nothing about this is usual. It is wishing colleagues a “happy” furlough, and then wincing at whether such a salutation is appropriate. It is a mood of resolute “que sera sera,” blended with frustration and worry about all the things that are not getting done while you are not there to do them.

“It’s upsetting,” said Virginia Mathis, a furloughed employee at the Department of Housing and Urban Development. “We’re very hardworking people — we do a lot for people across the country. And I feel that we’re obviously being used as a political pawn, but we’re also not being valued for what we do.”

On Tuesday, Mathis, a housing management specialist, had gone to her office just for an hour, to change her e-mail auto-reply message and voice-mail greeting, instructing callers to “please either leave a message or call us back when the government reopens.”

Whenever that is.

Once the four hours allotted for orderly shutdown were over, there was no order in the immediate future. Only an empty afternoon, threatening to stretch into the rest of the week, or month, or quarter.

At the American Battle Monuments Commission, Sarah Herrmann cleaned out her desk by assembling a bag of shoes. “I usually keep my high heels at work,” said the digital communications manager, but she figured she might need them during the shutdown. She spent her four hours unpublishing the agency’s Facebook page, disabling the YouTube comments. Down the hall, one of her colleagues was making sure that some Mall kiosks were properly closed. Another was phoning contractors, leaving them shutdown messages.

This colleague was Tim Nosal, the director of public affairs.

At 9:17, Nosal composed his out-of-office e-mail.

At 9:26, he recorded his out-of-office voice mail.

At about 9:55, John Brennan, the commission’s human resources chief, poked his head in the door. He was carrying a manila folder with a dwindling stack of two-page letters. Orderly-shutdown letters.

“All right,” Brennan says. “Basically, it says you’re on furlough.” Brennan, who himself would be furloughed once his furlough duties were finished, said that management would try to send an e-mail out, letting employees know when the shutdown ended. But because nobody on furlough is supposed to be checking work e-mail, Brennan said, if Nosal happened to hear elsewhere that the government is back in session, he should just come on back in. “We’ll be waiting for you.”

Nosal worried about all the visitors to the foreign cemeteries — the people who had spent years saving up for trips to visit the gravestones of loved ones and who would now arrive to find those cemeteries closed. But it was almost 11 a.m. “Okay,” he said, gathering his jacket and heading toward the exit. There was nothing more he could do. He had been shut down, orderly, and his four hours were up.

Victoria St. Martin contributed to this report.

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