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.”