“We’ll be cutting back on groceries to get through these furlough days,” Jones said.
At CBP, employees are bracing for 14 unpaid days between April and September. For many of the 1,300 workers Hiller represents, that will be more of a setback than a disaster. (Hiller has scrapped his own plans to trade in his 10-year-old car, for at least another year.)
Better-off workers are full of technical questions: Can I substitute a vacation day? (No.) Can I batch them together? (Still undetermined.)
But for others, furloughs will mean missed bills and real pain. The agency rolls include employees at the low end of the wage scale — some kennel workers who care for the agency’s sniffer dogs make about $15 an hour, Hiller said — who already struggle with the region’s high cost of living.
When he meets with the hardest cases, Hiller has learned to listen first and go into problem-solving mode only after the emotion has subsided. Some workers are canceling cable service. Some are cutting up credit cards. Others will apply to the agency’s Employee Assistance Program.
Hiller has asked the credit union, where many workers bank, to consider rescheduling some loan payments. And because credit problems can interfere with their security clearances, he is advising workers to negotiate with creditors before they get a late-payment notice.
“It’s been kind of like dealing with a tragedy,” Hiller said.
He describes the five-step process his members are going through: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.
“Those guys in Stage 5 are the ones making plans to minimize the impact,” he said.
Nate James, an IT specialist at the Environmental Protection Agency and president of AFGE Local 3331, said 13 days of planned furloughs has his cellphone ringing at all hours. He represents nearly 4,000 employees in the agency’s Washington headquarters.
James said the workers he talks to, sometimes late at night, are weary of the constant budget cuts and the public vitriol directed at civil servants. The number of employees applying for retirement has spiked.
“There’s a sense that if you can get out, you should,” said James, who spent 20 years in the military before going to the EPA. “It’s painful for people. They tend to really believe in the work we’re doing, protecting people’s air and water.”
He has been heartened, though, by other calls. Several senior staffers have asked James if they can take on additional furlough days and ease the load on vulnerable lower-level employees.
“You can call this a job, but at most jobs you don’t swear an oath,” said James, noting that he made the same pledge to “support and defend the Constitution” when he joined the civil service that he did when he joined the Marines.
At HUD, Eitches continued to work the dreary corridors. A HUD employee since the Carter administration and head of the local since 1999, he wandered the executive offices at will. Walking unannounced into the secretary’s suite — greeting each security guard with “Hello, brother,” on the way — he surprised acting chief of staff Peter Kovar in the big boss’s anteroom.
Kovar is one of nine Senate-confirmed appointees exempt from furloughs, and he and Eitches briefly discussed a proposal that would let those nine forgo their salary from each of the furlough days.
“We’d like to do that,” Kovar told him. “We wouldn’t want to walk in here each morning past people who are losing that pay and not do something to contribute.”