Here we go again; For a second time, federal workers turn around and head back home

By David Montgomery and Stephen Barr
Thursday, March 3, 2011; 11:53 AM

From The Washington Post archives

Published: December 19, 1995, Tuesday, Final Edition

Tens of thousands of federal employees streamed from government office buildings around the region before noon yesterday, the first disrupted workday in an ugly reprise of the last shutdown less than a month ago. Everything had an eerie familiarity. Once again, workers were uncertain whether they would be paid for the forced furlough, a more pressing concern now, with credit card balances already fattened for the holidays. Once more, a number of federal services were suspended indefinitely, and tourists were locked out of national parks, museums and monuments. Even the weather was the same: cold rain.

Nobody had asked for an encore.

"If you make a mistake once, that's okay. If you make it twice, people say, 'Didn't you learn your lesson?' " said Howard Brayer, 39, a furloughed budget analyst at the Education Department.

The shutdown, which began Saturday when much of the Mall was placed off-limits to tourists, sent about 260,000 federal employees home across the country. The shutdown will cost at least $ 40 million a day in lost productivity, measured by the wages of the furloughed workers. [White House says all furloughed workers are "essential," Page A10.]

That's far fewer than the 800,000 workers initially furloughed Nov. 14-19 at a daily cost of at least $ 120 million. Despite the smaller numbers, Shutdown II comes as agencies push to complete end-of-the-year business, such as grants to states, and close their books for the first quarter of the fiscal year.

For each day of the shutdown, 2,500 families will not be able to close on their mortgages because new federal housing insurance guarantees were stopped, removing $ 200 million a day in housing transactions from the economy. About 260 businesses that receive loans from the Small Business Administration will not get financing, about $ 40 million a day.

If the shutdown lasts through the week, it will delay at least two of the government's major benefit payments: including $ 4.5 billion in welfare assistance to 13.3 million recipients and $ 1.4 billion in checks to 3.3 million veterans and their survivors. Yesterday, House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) said he was not ready to decide whether furloughed employees should receive

retroactive pay.

"Many Americans on the one hand want to get to a balanced budget; on the other hand [they] don't understand why people would be paid if they don't work," Gingrich said. "I'm not prepared to make a statement either way about what we should do." Spokesmen for Senate Majority Leader Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) and the White House said federal employees should not be held responsible for the shutdown and said Dole and President Clinton support back pay. Gingrich's

remarks spread throughout an already demoralized federal work force, renewing fears that workers could lose pay during the holiday season. If the shutdown drags through the week, some agencies might not catch up on processing payrolls in time to cut January checks. Carla Lloyd, 30, took her two young daughters to work with her at the Bureau of Health Resources Development in Rockville yesterday. "I told my babysitter that I may not get paid if we are furloughed, and then I can't pay her," Lloyd said. "It's really upsetting."

If the shutdown continues for more than a few days, Jennifer Martines of the Department of Health and Human Services will look for a job as a waitress. "I think this time people are taking it a little more seriously," she said. "Last time, people said, 'See ya later!' "

Among the agencies that were subject to the shutdown are some that lack support among congressional Republicans -- the Commerce and Education departments and the Environmental Protection Agency. Some employees at those agencies say they fear that the shutdown is a prelude to layoffs when a budget agreement is reached.

Between 10:30 and 11 a.m. yesterday, agencies got the word to begin the furloughs. Everyone knew how to shut down the government, because they had done it before.

At the headquarters of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, on Seventh Street SW, building manager Elaine Robinson hustled into the building's bunker-like security office on the ground floor just before 11 a.m. and quickly cleared a desktop, then wiped it clean with a squirt of Pledge. Moments later, HUD Secretary Henry G. Cisneros arrived and took a seat at the desk, in front of a microphone.

"The impasse that has been caused by the insistence on the part of Congress to shut the government down in this way is not your fault," Cisneros said in announcing the shutdown to workers throughout the block-long, 10-story building. Cisneros told the workers that he could not promise they would be paid for the furlough time, but he urged them to finish "whatever tasks you are involved in . . . in the next hour" and "participate in an orderly shutdown" at noon. Then he

wished them happy holidays.

In Rockville, many of the more than 6,000 employees in HHS's sprawling Parklawn building received furlough notices just as a mix of hail and sleet swept over the area.

Employees packed up plants and poinsettias, exchanged gifts and pulled the plugs on desktop Christmas trees. Tony Kendrick, in the office of the director, sent out an e-mail message officially canceling the afternoon's "holiday open house." Betty Russell, 60, of the National Institute of Mental Health, said the ordeal "isn't very good for our mental health, right before Christmas. You don't like not having control of your life."

Russell, an administrative technician, and many of her colleagues didn't bother to dress up for work yesterday, knowing they would be sent home early. She wore sneakers and a sweat shirt.

By noon, all 18 floors of offices and 3,000 parking spaces at the Parklawn building were virtually empty.

Clinton administration officials said the impact of the shutdown would start to build as the week goes on. The National Park Service, for example, will notify campers and lodge guests today that they must leave the national parks at noon tomorrow if a funding agreement has not been reached. The Fish and Wildlife Service stopped hunting, fishing and bird-watching programs at its 508 refuges.

As it did during the first shutdown, the State Department expects to deny passports to about 23,000 applicants every day and to 20,000 people abroad who want visas to visit the United States.

As many as 20,000 families are applying for student loans and grants this month, but their applications will not be processed because agencies such as the Social Security Administration have furloughed employees who verify information on the forms.

Government contractors, furloughed just like government employees, described themselves as the forgotten army in the shutdown wars. Many employees said their companies would not pay them for the time off.

David Arter, who works for a company that helps record accidental chemical spills for the EPA, said his annual leave is exhausted because of the federal furloughs. "After today, I will have leave without pay," he said. "This is going to put me in the red."

Kenneth Conkright, 37, a Labor Department contractor, said there would be fewer gifts under his tree this year. "We haven't even started Christmas shopping yet," he said. "Christmas won't be as good."

Staff writers Paul Duggan, Hamil R. Harris and Marianne Kyriakos contributed to this report.

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