Shutdown City: Federal workers anxiously idled on first full day of furlough

October 2, 2013

For Dana Mellerio, being furloughed from NASA headquarters didn’t have the feel of a vacation. So he spent Wednesday trying to stay busy.

“I’m a little reticent to spend any money or relax . . . so I’m basically catching up on some chores, cleaning house, exercising, et cetera,” said Mellerio, who lives in Alexandria. “The situation isn’t like bonus time off because I’m suddenly unemployed and worried about when I can go back to work again. That’s not really the setup to enjoy free time.”

Across the Washington area, tens of thousands of laid-off federal workers woke up Wednesday morning and faced the same uneasy question:

Now what?

It was midweek, and the first full day of joblessness for government employees furloughed in the federal shutdown. No longer rushing anxiously to get to the office, they were anxiously idle instead, struggling to adapt to a new reality.

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Michelle Walton spent Wednesday at home in Annapolis, preparing a work-related presentation that she might not get to give if the shutdown continues. Furloughed from her job as a transplant nurse at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, Walton set out for an afternoon walk in the park. Soon, with no end in sight to the impasse between the White House and Congress, she began to think about Thursday.

“Anyone up for a furlough bike ride in Deep Creek tomorrow?” she posted on Facebook.

Henry Reyes, a civilian Army employee from Alexandria, was at a Lowe’s store buying plexiglass for window repair project. Like Walton, “I’d rather be working,” Reyes said. He said his wife told him it was “time to relax.” But he said lounging around the house on a weekday would have felt strange. “I’m not going to,” he told her.

Neither was Mary Siatis, a State Department employee also shopping at Lowe’s.

She finally had time to unload boxes from a recent move, she said. She also organized her daughter’s clothes and gathered up a bunch of older garments to be donated. “I’m making full use of this time,” she said. “My preference would be to work. But I’m going to take full advantage of every second I can, because the weekends are so busy.”

Denise Hawkins, a branch chief with the Environmental Protection Agency, did not get up at 6 a.m., as she usually does, and did not board the Metro for work downtown. She stayed in bed until 8 a.m. in her Bethesda home; she read the newspaper; she played the game Bejeweled on her computer.

Then she decided, “Enough is enough.” And she made a list: Go to Staples. Stop at the cleaners. Call Comcast. Call a handyman. Place photos in albums. Fix the belt on a coat. By midafternoon, she was busy doing laundry.

As the shutdown drags on, Hawkins said, she knows how she’ll handle it. She’ll keep making lists.

When will it end, when will it end? “No one has a crystal ball,” Hawkins said.

In the meantime, Catherine Ker, general manager of Bearnaise on Capitol Hill, said the French restaurant has recorded a 25 percent increase in revenue as a result of the shutdown, possibly because more people than usual are free for lunch and happy hours. She said the late-dinner crowd, coming in after 9 p.m., also has grown.

“I’ve spoken with a few other managers on Pennsylvania Avenue and the same thing is true all over,” Ker said. “We’re all busy, all the way through to 11 p.m.”

Even in the Washington Navy Yard area, where the end of the Washington Nationals’ season and government shutdown might be a double dose of bad news, the Park Tavern restaurant said it, too, has seen an increase in foot traffic and revenue.

“We had a huge pop during lunch,” said Caroline Kilner, the general manager. “It just seems like lots of people were drinking at lunchtime.”

With federally funded cultural institutions closed, private museums experienced an uptick in business as well.

“We’ve seen five times the amount of visitors today as on a typical Wednesday,” said Joanna Kauffmann, spokeswoman for the Corcoran Gallery of Art. The Newseum and the Spy Museum also have been far more crowded than usual. Many of the visitors were tourists — but not all of them.

“Almost half the people who came [Tuesday] were federal employees,” said Amy Mannarino, spokeswoman for the National Museum of Women in the Arts, which also has been busier than normal. “We’re able to track that because we’re offering them free admission, and they showed government IDs.”

Sitting on the dock of her friend’s riverside house near Annapolis, enjoying the afternoon sun, Pam Bradley marveled at the weather. “Luckily, they did this stupid, stupid, stupid stuff during a gorgeous October,” said Bradley, who has been furloughed by the Food and Drug Administration. She was referring to politicians and their spending stalemate.

“I woke up,” she said, “and I texted my office mate. I said: ‘This is really strange. What do I do now?’ ” On the dock, she said: “I’m having a wonderful day. But in the back of my mind, it’s like, “What if this goes on for three weeks?’ ”

As long as it continues, little Mia Becerra will have a grown-up playmate.

In Falls Church on Wednesday, Mia’s Dad, George Becerra, an analyst for the Department of Homeland Security, accompanied his elderly father to 7 a.m. mass in St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church. Then, around 1:30 in the afternoon, he picked up 3-year-old Mia at a day-care center and took her to a playground.

Mia likes climbing on the jungle gym, and getting to watch her — to spend time with her in the middle of a weekday — was a rare treat for Becerra.

In that sense, he said, being furloughed “keeps it real.”

Rachel Weiner, Dana Hedgpeth, Ian Shapira, Donna St. George, Victoria St. Martin, Katherine Boyle and Lonnae O’Neal Parker contributed to this report.

Michelle Boorstein is the Post’s religion reporter, where she reports on the busy marketplace of American religion.
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