Let's see if we can get this new government policy straight:

If you aren't scheduled to work and you don't work, you get paid anyhow. But if you are scheduled to work, and if you come to work, you can be sent home and won't be paid, even though people who stayed home will be paid.

The above silliness is just one of the comic (and financially painful) side effects of the congressional-White House let's-shut-down-the-government game, which is about to enter its third week of play.

An estimated 25,000 Washington area federal workers are caught in the political power squeeze policy and don't find it very amusing. Some of them will be docked 30 percent of their next paycheck because they were supposed to work the long Columbus Day holiday weekend.

Most of the government's 3 million federal workers didn't have to work on that holiday weekend. That is just as well because the government -- except for essential services -- was shut down because there was no budget and no authority to pay those regularly scheduled workers deemed nonessential. The Office of Management and Budget said nonessential employees who were furloughed can't be paid, although nonessential workers who were off on the holiday will be paid, since they weren't furloughed.

All of the above makes perfect sense if you are a macho politician trying to deal with the budget's big picture. But the same policy is asinine and cruel if you are a low-paid single parent trying to make the rent and feed the kids.

Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.) and Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) are hoping to persuade Congress to approve pay for the furloughed. President Bush will probably go along with it. But because it is part of the high-stakes poker game between Congress and the White House, that pay probably won't be approved until there is a budget. That could mean short checks for some people unless the politicians do their jobs quickly, which they haven't done lately.

Financial Help

Workers who need emergency loans have a place to go. But the line is getting longer each day. The Federal Employee Education and Assistance Fund, a private nonprofit organization, says it has awarded $240,000 in scholarships, arranged for $3 million in student loans and provided $250,000 in emergency financial aid to workers in need.

The fund was designed to be a federal worker self-help charity. It's part of the Combined Federal Campaign and employees can pledge to it. The problem is more people are receiving than giving. The fund is at 8441 West Bowles, Suite 200, Littleton, Colo., 80123. The phone number is 303-933-7586 or 1-800-323-4140. Those lines are often busy, so your best bet is to write for an application.

Zoo Volunteers

Friends of the National Zoo (FONZ) will have a special 7 p.m. tribute today for volunteers who help run some concessions and exhibitions. Last year FONZ volunteers donated an estimated $890,000 worth of labor. They are expected to be on hand again if the government experiences another budget-related furlough or shutdown.