For federal workers, anxiety over a possible shutdown


Federal Aviation Administration workers Cassandra Jordan(L) and Michelle Westover(R) waited for co-worker Christopher Lorning(C) get his lunch at the DC Empanadas truck. (Mark Gail/WASHINGTON POST)

Just before 7 a.m. most weekdays, Michael Kane sits at a table in the cafeteria of the Energy Department headquarters on Independence Avenue SW and tries valiantly to quell the anxiety of the people who work there.

The government could shut down in a week if Congress can’t reach a budget deal. And the Obama administration hasn’t told workers what a shutdown would look like — who will be asked to come to work and who will be told to stay home.

Rank-and-file federal workers have a thousand and one questions. Kane, Energy’s human resources chief, is fielding many of them.

Parents fret over whether the day-care center at headquarters will stay open. (Yes.) Employees who have planned business trips want to know how — and whether — they’ll get home. (It depends.) Everyone asks: If I’m told I’m not essential, will I be able to get into my office? (Definitely not.) The extra-diligent wonder whether they should race to finish assignments before next Friday.

And everywhere workers wonder whether they will be paid. (There’s no guarantee.)

On Thursday, a resolution to the impasse seemed no closer as House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and House GOP freshmen tamped down hopes that Democrats and Republicans had reached a deal. A tea party rally on Capitol Hill reinforced that message just a day after both sides resumed talks to resolve their stalemate. On again, off again — the possibility of a government shutdown has been seesawing for weeks.

“You have to keep reminding them that the worst thing they can do is start adjusting their schedule to something that might not become evident for a period of time,” Kane said.

But who wouldn’t try to plan? Federal workers are anxious. As House and Senate leaders have bickered over bloated government, stopgap budgets, debt ceilings and shutdowns, many of the 2 million civil servants have become frustrated and fed up.

“The worst of it is the uncertainty,” said Michael Besmer, who processes Social Security payments in Philadelphia. “For all we know, we’ll go home next Friday and we won’t know whether to come to work on Monday. We hear more from the media than our superiors.”

For personnel and information-technology managers, planning for a shutdown is time-consuming.

“A lot of people with budgetary responsibility are planning for a shutdown instead of for next year’s budget,” said Diane Breckenridge, who works in the office of the secretary of Health and Human Services. “It doesn’t add to the productivity of the government.”

And none of it helps morale, Breckenridge said. Shutdown or no shutdown, she added, many know that major budget cuts are on the way.

Although the government has twice come within 48 hours of a shutdown, the White House has ordered agencies to withhold from rank-and-file workers decisions on who would report to work and who wouldn’t.

“It would not be prudent to discuss plans that have not been finalized,” said Moira Mack, a spokeswoman for the Office of Management and Budget. Each agency is responsible for determining what functions are essential during a shutdown and which employees must report for duty.

If the worst happens, agencies “will absolutely communicate with the workforce about those plans,” Mack said, cautioning that “the congressional leadership and the president have been clear they want to avoid a shutdown and talks are ongoing.”

But not everyone is sweating the possibility of a shutdown.

Some civil servants, among them those who have spouses working in the private sector, say they would welcome time off.

“I’m in a position where if I was, if things were shut down, it would be nice to look forward to a little break,” said Michelle Westover of Chantilly, who works on international issues for the Federal Aviation Administration.

Her colleague had a different coping strategy.

“I’m in the mode of it’s not going to happen, so I’m trying not to focus too much on it,” said Cassandra Jordan of Upper Marlboro, who has worked at the FAA for 25 years.

What many are focusing on is the possibility of losing pay.

After the shutdown of 1995 and 1996 during the Clinton administration, Congress approved retroactive pay for furloughed civil servants. But today, with House Republicans determined to cut spending, no one is taking getting paid for granted.

“I urge people, don’t assume that’s going to happen,” said Colleen M. Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union. “This is a very different time and a different Congress.”

Over lunch and on Facebook, workers have been discussing the what ifs.

Tax refunds they had planned to save might have to be spent. Whether Internal Revenue Service agents would be at their desks to process the refunds is another question. A spokesman said the agency doesn’t comment on “hypothetical situations.”

“Everybody is financially stressed,” said Yvonne Clearwater, a project manager for NASA’s Ames Research Center in northern California. “Government workers are in a more steady-state situation, but like everyone else, we’re looking at our home equity.”

When the government closed 16 years ago, managers picked up the phone to tell their staffs. Today, the news would spread on BlackBerrys, Twitter and Facebook, and technology is allowing federal employees to write memos and join staff meetings from home.

But throughout the government, IT staff members are busy determining how to block nonessential workers from opening e-mail. It would be illegal for anyone considered nonessential to work during a shutdown.

An IT manager at the Department of Homeland Security, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because this official lacked the authority to talk publicly about shutdown planning, said: “If they leave a footprint that [they’ve] been on a government computer, that’s a fireable offense.”

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Ed O’Keefe is a congressional reporter with The Washington Post and covered the 2008 and 2012 presidential and congressional elections.
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