Federal workers resent ‘nonessential’ label

Don’t call the federal workers waiting to buy lunch from downtown Washington’s food trucks “nonessentials.” It’s like being branded with a scarlet letter N, or ending up the punchline of a late-night comedy bit that’s actually not that funny when there are bills to pay.

Essential. Nonessential. These are the terms commonly, although not officially, used for employees who find themselves in one of two controversial categories: starting players or benched, during a partial government shutdown that is being threatened.

For the government workforce there’s increasing frustration over the labels — officially known as “excepted,” as in allowed to work, as opposed to those sent home or “non-excepted,” long-standing vocabulary that’s part of an effort to destigmatize what are considered offensive labels.

Whatever the terminology, the labels are raising anxiety levels inside government offices with supervisors starting to inform employees Thursday about which category they are in, said federal workers who were eating together in L’Enfant Plaza.

In Washington, where jobs often define a person’s sense of self-worth, people eating lunch talked about their prospects and eyed one another, laughing nervously about which group they would find themselves in.

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“It’s like a stab in the back. Like being told in high school that you’re average and not in the honors classes,” said Steve Ressler, 32, who worked in Homeland Security for six years and now runs GovLoop, informally known as Facebook for Feds. “But it matters, because we need the most talented people to work for government on issues as important as food stamps or Syria. We don’t want the best being driven away by all this beating up on federal workers.”

Being nonessential is not only insulting, it means a worker may not be paid, at least not right away, those eating lunch said. After previous shutdowns, lawmakers voted to compensate employees who were ordered off the job. But this time, many members of a deeply divided Congress could prove unsympathetic and may not vote to help employees recoup lost income.

In preparation for a pay cut, a 30-year-old Treasury employee on Wednesday skipped the $10 Bahn Mi sandwiches outside Metro Center to unwrap a grim serving of “several weeks old chicken,” brought from the back of his fridge. He said he was waiting to hear whether he was excepted or non-excepted, but feared the latter.

“This has gotten personal because it’s my paycheck,” he said, asking not to be named because he didn’t have permission from his agency to speak to the media. “I’m stressed out. I need to pay my rent. The main problem is that a lot of politicians are so removed from reality that they think these parlor games don’t have real consequences.”

What makes it all the more infuriating to employees is that the threat of a shutdown feels too familiar, like a scene from the movie “Groundhog Day,” where the same events play out, again and again.

Here's what some agencies have said about their specific plans in case of a government shutdown.

“I was hurt, offended by this two years ago, so I’m over it,” said Frank Matranga, 28, a program analyst with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, who said he was already told he was nonessential. “Here’s to hoping the bars in D.C. do the nonessential drink specials again.”

In a similar situation in 2011, the Obama administration estimated that of the 2.1 million federal employees outside the self-funding U.S. Postal Service, 800,000 would be furloughed.

“It makes our job on the Hill a lot more difficult,” said Jessica Klement, the legislative director of the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association. “There were members of Congress the last time we went through this two years ago who said: If these people aren’t essential, why are they there? Why are they employed? We say these people have a job to do, and that job is dictated to them by Congress.”

The possibility of furloughs feels particularly offensive to a subset of federal workers who have been courted for government jobs: military veterans, who after serving in combat zones suddenly are told that they are now nonessentials and aren’t even allowed to check their government-issued BlackBerrys.

“It feels like we are being used as political pawns,” said a Desert Storm veteran who now works for the federal government. “Vets are people who missed seeing their children born, who risked life and limb and are proud to serve their country. Now they can’t help thinking, ‘Why should we work for the government in civilian jobs when people just spit on what we do?’ ”

Government shutdown policies in their present form date to a 1980 Justice Department determination that only certain operations legally can continue without an appropriation. Later that year, the Office of Management and Budget interpreted such functions to include, among certain others, “essential activities to the extent that they protect life and property.”

That has been the basis for a string of OMB memos since then, most recently one issued last week. They speak of essential activities, however, not of essential people.

In a memo to his department’s employees, Labor Secretary Thomas E. Perez tried to boost spirits.

“Importantly, the categorization of employees and whether or not someone is furloughed is not a reflection on the quality of their work, nor of their importance to our agency,” he wrote. “It is merely a reflection of the legal requirements that we must operate under should a lapse occur.”

Regardless of official terminology, John Palguta, vice president for policy of the Partnership for Public Service, said, “People revert to the old language. For some, the term ‘nonessential’ means it’s not important, which is not the original intent.” (The Partnership has a content-sharing relationship with The Washington Post.)

But intent doesn’t seem to matter when you are a nonessential.

Naomi Johnson, a federal employee and producer of a comedy show for federal workers called the “Funniest Fed competition,” said the topic is an obvious target for her shows.

“After three years of pay ­freezes, furloughs, sequestration, travel and training cuts, constant fed bashing and hoteling cubicle-sharing, some of us might not mind a few days off,” she said. “Even if that implies we are ‘tier 1 millionth’ or the stuff that is left over.”

Lisa Rein contributed to this report.

Emily Wax-Thibodeaux is a National staff writer who covers veterans, veterans' affairs and the culture of government. She's an award-winning former foreign correspondent who covered Africa and India for nearly a decade. She also covered immigration, crime and education for the Metro staff.
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