Government shutdown looks different to workers who toil in Capitol’s basement

It is a place of discarded desk chairs, lost tourists and workers with their names stitched on their shirts. This is a different U.S. Capitol— two levels below the one they show on C-SPAN — where people chop onions, haul furniture and cut hair.

And here, in the drab basements of Capitol Hill, the threat of a government shutdown looks different: scarier, closer, more mean-spirited. For these workers, what stings is not just the threat of having their wages cut off. It is who’s making the threat: the very legislators that drink the coffee they brew and ride the elevators they operate.

“Do you notice that I’m here?” Matthew Moses, a Maryland resident who moves furniture, wonders when he passes lawmakers in the hall. With tattoos poking out from under his blue work shirt, Moses said he’s worried that his bills would back up during a shutdown.

“I wouldn’t say [I’m] necessarily mad mad” at the members of Congress, he said. “But it’s frustrating, because these things should be handled properly.”

The Capitol employs 2,600 workers to maintain its buildings, trim its trees and operate its mini-subways. More than 75 percent of them would be told not to report during a shutdown, according to the Architect of the Capitol, the agency that manages buildings and grounds.

The remainder, who were being notified of their status Thursday, would be needed for limited food service, restroom cleaning and mechanical emergencies. But they wouldn’t necessarily be paid: After Congress restarted the government, it would have to approve back pay.

“This is not guaranteed,” a letter to employees said. In bold letters.

A month ago, a union that represents hundreds of Capitol employees advised them to begin saving up so they wouldn’t run out of money in an extended shutdown.

“But we’re talking about a couple of paychecks ago,” said Wally Reed, a U.S. Botanic Garden worker and president of the union local. Another union official said many workers make between $30,000 and $50,000. “How much can any one person put aside in a couple of paychecks?”

In the Capitol basement Thursday, the shutdown was the thing that nobody understood — and everybody wanted to talk about. “I got a paycheck for next week. I know that!” one Capitol Police officer said, manning a metal detector.

“Yeah,” the officer next to him said. “But what about after that?”

The worries extended all through a network of basement tunnels that stretch from the Capitol to Senate and House office buildings, and deep into the vast new Capitol Visitors Center.

There, the Capitol’s 138 tour guides and assistants have been told they won’t be needed during a shutdown. Many are distraught at the idea of tourists arriving from California or Colorado and finding a locked door.

“They’ll be able to see the Capitol” from the outside, said Megan Burger, a guide and union official. But “they can’t see where the Missouri Compromise was passed, or where the lying-in-state for President Reagan was. It just breaks [tour guides’] hearts.”

Burger said guides had taken this so hard that they even offered to come to work in street clothes and give their lectures outdoors. But Capitol bosses said the guides can’t do anything that would even imply they are acting officially.

The uncertainty extended even to those who aren’t actually employees, but part of the Capitol’s vast force of private contractors. In the basement of the Rayburn House Office Building, barber Joe “Joe Q” Quattrone said that he would stay open in a shutdown.

But he wouldn’t expect many customers.

“I mean, we’re just a little peon, that’s all,” said Quattrone, an Italian immigrant who has cut hair on the Hill for 41 years. He still has hope: When they’re in his chair, congressmen tell him they’re working to avoid a shutdown. “I haven’t talked to anybody who says, ‘I want this place to shut down,’ ” Quattrone said.

Carla Diaz, a Brazilian immigrant in a blue work smock, has shined shoes in the same windowless corner of a House building’s basement for 20 years. She said business was already dead, with her customers working too hard to stop for a shine.

She said at first that she was concerned, but then — when customers drifted within earshot — suddenly brightened. “I’m not too worried, because they’re very smart,” she said. “I love them!”

In other corners, however, workers had started to sour on the legislators they work to support.

“I wish they had some type of sympathy,” said a woman working at a dry-cleaning counter who declined to give her name. She said some congressional staff members, in to drop off or pick up, told her she should have made a plan to last through a shutdown.

She didn’t.

But she has now.

“I’m looking for another job,” the woman said, maybe in nursing. “Not a government job, because I don’t want this to happen again.”

All of this bitterness pours out in the small office of Micheline Powell, a U.S. Postal Service employee who runs a small office below the Capitol’s grand Rotunda. Powell won’t be furloughed in a shutdown. But she listened to a friend, a Capitol elevator operator, and felt guilty.

“They’re screwing up your life, and they don’t mind that you’re sitting right there,” Powell said of the lawmakers. She said her friend had already told her of a revenge plot: The operator is “going to write a book,” laying out all the things legislators have said in the elevator.

David A. Fahrenthold covers Congress for the Washington Post. He has been at the Post since 2000, and previously covered (in order) the D.C. police, New England, and the environment.
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