The threat of an extended loss of pay is hitting a workforce already battered by a three-year wage freeze, months of furloughs forced by the budget cuts known as sequestration and a dimmed perception of government work among many Americans.
At Washington’s National Zoo, where thousands of visitors jostled to see images of the newborn panda, electrician Stephen Gripper planned to check the lighting in the Great Cats exhibit.
Then he was going to bow his head and pray.
The threat of unpaid days off faced by more than 800,000 federal employees would be a real hardship for Gripper, 56.
He’s already working two jobs — including freelance handyman work — to try to help his children repay several hundred thousand dollars in student loans. He’s proud to say they all went to college, but he’s also broke.
“We just can’t get a break — what’s happened to this country?” said Gripper, a father of six and resident of Gaithersburg, who has also worked for the Bureau of Printing and Engraving. “I’m literally praying for God’s grace to set America straight.”
As the House and Senate took the day off with no resolution to their budget impasse in sight, many employees whose salaries would not be paid under a shutdown were upset at Congress for threatening their financial stability, trapping them in the middle of its political dysfunction and making a mockery of their pride in public service.
“I try not to watch the news that much, because it can make you really angry,” said maintenance worker Bobby Dillard of Upper Marlboro. He and a colleague, brooms in hand, were standing near a second-floor restroom at the National Air and Space Museum on the Mall.
“It’s just like you’re handicapped,” he said, acknowledging that he had not planned which expenses to cut if his paycheck starts to shrink this week.
His colleague, Valerie Dyson, said she has enough savings to manage for two or three weeks. “I just pray,” Dyson said.
Bernard Gallagher, a longtime Smithsonian employee, spent Sunday visiting Leonardo da Vinci’s “Codex on the Flight of Birds,” the 1505 document showing the artist’s interest in human flight. “Because it’s temporary, and what if?” he said in explaining the visit, saying the exhibit would close Oct. 22 and a shutdown could mean missing it.
Gallagher is a data manager at the National Museum of American History. He has been through shutdowns and threats of the same during his 35-year career in government. On Monday, the last day of the fiscal year, he’ll be printing a report on what his department accomplished this year.
“The senior folks in my office have gone through this, and we’re either prepared or we’re just going to say this is politics as usual,” he said. “We can’t be on bated breath with every little news bulletin.”
At 58, Gallagher is planning to retire soon. He worries that if Congress doesn’t vote to give him back pay for the days he might not be working, his pension could be a little less when it’s calculated.
Many federal workers said privately that they wanted to express their opinions but were ordered to refer questions to their public affairs offices.
“We aren’t [NSA leaker] Edward Snowden here — we just want to explain how this impacts ordinary Americans,” said one zoo employee who asked to remain anonymous for fear of being punished. “It only adds to how beat up federal workers now feel.”
Supervisors referred all questions to the Office of Management and Budget.
Steven Posner, an OMB spokesman, said there was no government-wide gag order. But as a way of explaining how the workforce felt he referred a reporter to President Obama’s statement on Friday addressing the economic and emotional effects of a shutdown.
Outside of Washington, where 85 percent of the federal workforce lives, employees were scrambling to complete work.
Carolyn Federoff, an attorney in the Boston office of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, spent Sunday reviewing documents to close a deal with a developer to build 27 apartments for low-income elderly residents in Winthrop, Mass.
“It’s not like I’m getting compensated for working on Sunday,” she said. “But we’ve got to get this deal done. This is such a crazy Congress that nobody can be sure the money would survive into the next fiscal year.”
She scheduled a dental appointment for Tuesday afternoon. “Maybe it’s a little cynical of me. But I figure we’re not going to be working October 1 because of this [expletive] Congress. I can’t say politely what they are.”
Back in Washington at the Air and Space Museum gift shop, James Gekas sold three postcards to a visitor. A recent University of Maryland graduate “in a transitional stage,” Gekas is 26. He lives with his parents in University Park.
“We’re making low wages as it is,” he said.
He has one month left before his $9.55-an-hour gig runs out.
“I don’t want to see the place close for my last month,” he said. He’s interviewing for a job doing supply chain management for the military. “Another federal job,” he said as he rolled his eyes. “Funny, right?”
The past week was particularly sad, zoo workers said. One of the zoo’s biggest draws, the panda Webcams, will be closed down along with more than 20 other animal cams.
“It’s a very popular feature around the country, but it’s not considered essential services,” said Pamela Baker-Masson, a spokeswoman for the National Zoo, where the gates will be closed to the public. Animal keepers and other employees will still report to work.
Tysean Carr, 20, a popcorn vendor near the zoo’s Panda Plaza, said he had one message for Congress.
“Please get this over with,” said the college student, who works 30 hours a week at the zoo in addition to attending business classes. “I gotta pay rent.”
As the electrician Gripper watched families snap photos of orangutans traveling overhead, he said that government work was once synonymous with job security.
“I still love this country, and it’s still a place that’s less poor than most,” Gripper said. “But something’s gone really wrong when I have to think about selling off items just to maintain my life. All I want is to go to work.”