Petula Dvorak
Petula Dvorak
Columnist

‘How I Spent My Furlough Day’ Facebook page becomes as divisive as the sequester

There’s a picture of painted toenails against the background of a cool, blue pool.

A proud dad with a newborn son.

A garage project.

A thick, smoked brisket.

These are all responses by federal workers explaining how they spent their furlough day.

Nice, right? Except forced time off is also divisive, painful and political, like everything else in Washington these days.

Two women who work at the Pentagon — and are part of the 650,000 defense civilian workers taking 11 mandatory furlough days throughout the summer and into October — tried to put a positive spin on the sequester debacle with a Facebook page, “How I Spent My Furlough Day.”

They invited other folks who are forced to take a 20 percent cut in their workweek to post how they’re spending that one pay-free day every week.

“Making lemonade out of lemons” is how one of the page’s creators, Beth Flores, put it.

And they have gotten stories of house projects finally done, recipes to try, coupon exchanges to help stretch dollars. They posted a “Furlough Friday” rap (recycled from 2010), Furlough Fashion (a plain old T-shirt) and Furlough Food (ramen).

Flores, who is 40 and lives in Arlington, said she started the unofficial Facebook page after all the mundane, clinical details of the furloughs were rained upon her staff, with no levity.

“No one had really tapped into the human dimension of it. We just wanted to lighten the mood,” she said.

But this being Washington, the page went from Pinterest to pincushion quickly.

Those with upbeat takes — like a dad spending more time with his kids or using his furlough time to do volunteer work — have been blasted for playing into the public perception that federal employees are overpaid.

And there has been no shortage of political commentary flambéing Congress, whose inaction triggered the sequester and put everyone in this place.

“Now, we had 4,000 members [Monday]. People from all over the country, all over the world, people from all different ranks, all different political persuasions,” Flores said.

And beyond an album of how people spent their furlough day, she helped create a tapestry of the American economic story — how the cut in pay affects so many different people in different ways.

She said she wasn’t naive and knew that opening the page to the public could make it less than lighthearted. So she wasn’t surprised when it became more combative — and poignant.

“I’ve been saddened to see how the comments have taken on a more negative and politicized tone and finger-pointing orientation,” Flores posted on the page this week.

Flores works as the director of leadership and organizational development in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. Now she does that just four days a week. And she was hoping to create a Facebook community to help others through the furloughs.

Flores and a fellow furloughed worker, Christel Fonzo-Eberhard, even organized a Furlough Fun Run this month, complete with slogans such as, “I’m running instead of . . . providing world class military healthcare.” Like their workweeks, the run ended at the 80 percent mark of the expected length.

Flores has watched the group swell and the posts quickly go from DIY projects to political screeds.

There’s the furloughed worker snarking about President Obama’s Martha’s Vineyard vacation: “Wow would love to take my furlough days up there!”

And the one questioning foreign aid during the furlough: “And how is giving money to the Middle East going to help my financial meltdown?”

The angst is easy to understand, given the fragile state of the U.S. economy.

The pool and a day around the house isn’t in the cards for folks who need every penny of their earnings to pay their bills.

“Not sure what/how a lot of you get to ‘go away,’ ” writes a man who posted a photo of six packages of rice and ramen, explaining that this is his “lunch & dinner for the week,” thanks to the bite out of his family’s budget.

Other workers are upset that more media organizations haven’t covered the story of their involuntary cut in pay.

And others have called their federal brothers and sisters to arms, to march on Capitol Hill and demand a balanced budget, to spend the furlough day writing letters and making calls, to vote all the bums out of office come Election Day.

This is a time in America when the gap — let’s call it the ramen-pool gap — is widening.

“The income of the top 1 percent nearly quadrupled from 1979 to 2007, but the typical family’s incomes barely budged,” Obama said last week in a series of speeches focused on the nation’s disappearing middle class. “And the decades-long erosion that had been taking place, the erosion of middle-class security, was suddenly laid bare for everybody to see.”

No kidding. It’s all laid bare on that Facebook page, where you see exactly what a 20 percent reduction in work — and what amounts to about a 25 percent cut in pay — means for folks who are squarely in that middle class or trying to arrive there.

It’s a reminder that all it takes is one or two bad turns — a spouse out of work, a sick kid, a major home repair, a 20 percent cut in the workweek — to fall out of the pool and into the ramen.

 
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