The siren call of the BlackBerry for furloughed federal workers

In Shutdown City, the BlackBerry is the forbidden fruit.

Bonnie Tuma stares longingly at her government-issued smartphone with scary frequency. “I’m facing it in the charger,” said Tuma, a furloughed human resources manager at the National Institutes of Health. “I have to pull myself away. It’s not easy. I have to stop myself.”

The silenced, non-vibrating, non-lit BlackBerrysand iPhones have become, for many government workers, a symbol of the work they yearn to do but can’t.

Some are pondering ways to cheat, losing their will to stay away and risking a $5,000 fine and a trip to federal prison as the shutdownstretched into its second week. Temptations are everywhere, especially through personal technology. Contractors are e-mailing government workers on their personal e-mail accounts. Web browser bookmarks on home computers offer quick paths to government intranets.

One federal IT worker misses his servers badly but knows logging in remotely will leave a digital footprint and could get him in trouble. His coping mechanism: manage personal servers for his home — a form of faux work.

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House Republicans have proposed funding that amounts to about one-third of discretionary funding. See the bills here.

“I’ve always said I’d do my job for free, so that’s what I’m doing,” said the IT worker, who works for the International Trade Commission and requested that his name be withheld. “I’m just not doing it for the nation.”

(More on the shutdown: On Capitol steps, Gray confronts Reid on D.C.’s funds)

The want-to-work-but-can’t agony is illustrative, experts say, of the continued melding of personal and professional lives that has taken place inside and outside the government since the last shutdown 17 years ago. It is a particularly bitter pill for government workers, who research showstypically pursue the work for intrinsic rewards rather than great wealth or status.

Their belief in their essentialness is hard-wired. But now their bosses have told them the unthinkable: Power down your smartphones. And don’t you dare work.

“In the 21st century, people see their careers as a story about their working lives, and this shutdown has caused an unexpected rupture in who they are,” said Mark Savickas, who studies vocational behavior at Northeastern Ohio Universities College of Medicine. “It’s bringing a discontinuity to their lives and causing them to wonder why work suddenly doesn’t love them back.”

Government work is supposed to be stable. It’s the private sector that’s uncertain. Or that’s how it is supposed to go. For many, that’s a hard hit to take, and actual sadness didn’t take long to develop as the crisis unfolded. First couple days of the shutdown: Hang out with family, meet people for lunch. Fun. Different. Relaxing. Then: Emptiness.

“I’m going to start going crazy soon and wishing I had brought work home,” said a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention employee who is pondering cheating. “I think my work is important. I think I’m important in what I do.”

She will most likely use Web sites that her boss can’t track to do research for a paper, even though she would be in violation of the Anti-Deficiency Act, which prohibits government workers from volunteering their services or working for free during a shutdown. She knows of others who plan to work, too. One CDC colleague told her that the situation was making her feel “unprideful.”

Federal government employees are, shutdowns aside, a prideful bunch. A 2012 surveyby the Office of Personnel Management of more than 687,000 workers found that “nearly all Federal employees report that their work is important” and that eight in 10 like what they do. About 70 percent of the workers reported that their jobs provide non-monetary rewards, including a feeling of personal accomplishment.

Roughly half of those studied — and a dominant demographic within the federal workforce — were baby boomers. Work matters to boomers. A 2010 study in the Journal of Management found that only 23 percent of boomers thought “work is just making a living.” Three-fourths of them said they “expected work to be a central part of their lives.”

Beth Beck is 57, a boomer who has worked in government for 28 years. She’s an innovations manager for NASA, working on data technology and digital strategy. Her government-issued iPhone is turned off, and she doesn’t have a personal device. She answered her land-line phone the other day for an interview by saying, “My land line actually works — it’s amazing.”

Not working is not amazing.

“It’s been hard to turn that side of my brain off,” said Beck, who lives in Alexandria. “I don’t miss the bureaucracy. I don’t miss the paperwork. I don’t miss a lot of how we do things in government. But I do miss the job, the creativity, the problem solving. It’s an important part of who I am.”

Contractors have e-mailed her on her personal account about ongoing projects, but though the temptation is there, right in front of her, just a few keyboard clicks away, she knows the work is out of bounds. She’s just making mental notes of things until she can power up her iPhone again and work/tweet/e-mail without breaking the law.

“This is really the digital divide,” she said.

Technology has been the magnet drawing work and life closer together, especially in the federal government, which doesn’t actually produce physical products. The technology in many ways is the work. The BlackBerry was just coming onto the market during the last shutdown, but it eventually became a tool — and a status symbol — for the increasing and inescapable connection to work.

“Really what we’re doing is moving and shaping information,” said Roger Hill, a professor at the University of Georgia who studies work ethic. “So there’s a closer association between technology and the work itself. Technology is what has brought this potential to work to a 24/7 state in our lives.”

When it goes away, so does the work — and the sense of fulfillment.

“Before the furlough, I was thinking that it wouldn’t be so bad — nobody ever misses work that much, right?” said a lawyer for a federal law enforcement agency who is not allowed to give his name. Then, on the first day of the shutdown, he went into work, turned off his BlackBerry and set up out-of-office messages for his e-mail.

“It was a little bit sad and strange to wake up and not have it anymore, the structure of work,” he said. “Work is part of your routine. It’s what you do. You just feel better about yourself. You can look back at the end of the day and know you accomplished something.”

Until you can’t.

Michael Rosenwald is a reporter on the Post?s local enterprise team. He writes about the intersection of technology, business and culture.
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