Shutdown hits the wallets and the spirits of federal employees

Joe Davidson
Columnist October 1, 2013

The U.S. government attacked itself early Tuesday, shuttering much of its operation and forcing hundreds of thousands of federal employees from their workplaces.

Staff members had no choice but to surrender to the inaction of Congress, which could not agree on legislation to keep the government fully operational.

Joe Davidson writes the Federal Diary, a column about the federal workplace that celebrated its 80th birthday in November 2012. View Archive

Reports that Uncle Sam hung his head in shame could not be verified, but there certainly was reason for his elected leadership, particularly the right side of it, to be ashamed of their performance.

Republican insistence on linking basic funding legislation to a hit on the Affordable Care Act prevented agreement on a bill that would allow national parks to remain open, veterans benefits to be processed and about 800,000 federal employees to be paid.

The loss of pay is serious. For some households, a federal job is the single source of income. Some families with two federal workers will now have none.

Tell us your story

But more than the money, broken spirits appear to be emerging among some federal employees.

The quiet halls and empty cubicles in the Department of Housing and Urban Development provide stark evidence of the shutdown. Much of the building looked as if it had been hit by a strange force that vaporizes people while leaving their desks and the structure intact.

The generally buzzing Dunkin’ Donuts store on the building’s third floor had customers, but it was unusually quiet. An adjacent snack shop was closed. The credit union down the hall, however, was busy as members got their money before the office closed.

Unless Congress decides otherwise, which can’t be assumed, furloughed employees won’t get paid for the days they are locked out. Those working because they are excepted from the furlough will be paid, but who knows when? They can’t take “eventually” to the bank or to their creditors.

All this leaves federal employees upset and frustrated. But there’s something more. Conversations with workers point to a growing level of alienation among some who were once proud members of the federal service.

But this shutdown, along with three years of a freeze on their basic pay rates and a recent string of unpaid days because of budget cuts, leaves many feeling unappreciated and disrespected.

The Washington area ranks fourth nationwide in percent of all workers on the federal and military payroll, far ahead of the other 10 largest metro areas.

President Obama recognized this in a letter to employees. He praised them for the “vitally important” work they do “in a political climate that, too often in recent years, has treated you like a punching bag. ”

“None of this is fair to you. And should it continue, it will make it more difficult to keep attracting the kind of driven, patriotic, idealistic Americans to public service that our citizens deserve and that our system of self-government demands.”

He should talk to Sandy Krems to learn what a punching bag feels like.

“I used to be really proud to work for the federal government. I used to feel really proud to work for HUD,” said Krems, who has been with the department since 1988. “But now I feel marginalized, completely. I feel like a pawn in the political process.”

Standing next to the closed snack shop, Krems, a steward with the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), told how only last week she suggested that a young woman should not pursue a federal career.

“I advised against it. It broke my heart to say that,” she said.

Krems now is on furlough. Her husband, a defense contractor in a federal building, also is shut out.

“We just discovered we will have no income,” she said.

Perhaps it’s not the best time to ask her and her colleagues, even those who will continue working, if Uncle Sam is a good, reliable employer.

Those lucky enough to be excepted from the furlough still feel for their co-workers. Kita Davis works in the Labor Department solicitor’s office and will remain at her post. As her colleagues were preparing to leave, she told about seeing one place flowers in a box to take home during the shutdown.

“It’s very sobering,” Davis said.

Employees “should not have to suffer for the incompetence of Congress,” said Eddie Eitches, president of AFGE’s Council 222, which represents HUD staffers. “This is a lockout, pure and simple. This is another direct attack on federal workers.”

International Federation of Professional & Technical Engineers President Gregory Junemann urged them to fight back.

“Since the House of Representatives is kicking you out the door, you should take to the streets, let your voices be heard, and remind them that ultimately it is you who will decide their fate, not the other way around.”

Members of Congress, by the way, continue to be paid, while so many of the employees they oversee do not.

The National Treasury Employees Union urged its members to complain to Congress and provided a sample letter.

“I am asking you to consider the damage you are causing,” it reads.

William R. Dougan, president of the National Federation of Federal Employees, said, “This shutdown is shameful, it is unacceptable. . . . Federal employees have already endured three years of frozen pay, cuts to retirement benefits, and over a week of unpaid furlough days. They have given more than their fair share. Even more furloughs under this shutdown will be the straw that broke the camel’s back.”

It certainly seems to have broken the spirit of some.

The shutdown debacle left Pam Marcus, a Department of Health and Human Services employee, “embarrassed to be an American.”

“I am embarrassed to be affiliated professionally with the U.S. federal government,” she said.

Congress can change that. Respect the feds.

Twitter: @JoeDavidsonWP

For previous columns, go to wapo.st/JoeDavidson.

Comments
Show Comments
Most Read Politics