From biologists in Bethesda to clerk typists in downtown Washington, federal workers weren't panicking yesterday, but they were making plans. Just in case.
Facing the threat that they may be furloughed without pay for up to 22 days in the coming budget year, some said their supervisors advised them not to buy cars right now. Others contemplated getting second jobs.
"It would hurt me . . . paying my rent, paying my car note," said Norman Burks, a machine operator in the laundry department at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda for 23 years. "I've got a lot of bills. I can't afford to get laid off."
For many, the news of possible furloughs was a blow to the image of the federal government as a safe place to work; where the money may not be as good as in private business but the job security makes up for it.
Overton Cavanaugh, a clerk-typist at the Labor Department, said he would advise people looking for a job to "take another avenue right now instead of coming here."
Geraldine Davis, a Labor Department accounting technician, said that when her 14-year-old daughter reaches working age, "I'd tell her to find a job with some type of security, something where you don't have to worry when you come in each day."
Though the threat of furloughs is a typical part of federal spending spats at the end of each fiscal year, the warning this time comes earlier and the furloughs could keep more people off the job for longer.
With Congress and the White House stalled on budget talks, the furloughs would be required under the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings law when the new fiscal year begins Oct. 1. Some say the threat is a White House pressure tactic on Congress and may come to nothing, but agencies are required to warn employees of possible furloughs by Aug. 31.
So some government employees are taking it more seriously this time. Others still don't believe it.
"They've said it a hundred times, but we've never been this bad off," said Evelyn Rivera, a biologist at NIH in Bethesda. "The government needs to save on money."
"I'm not taking it very seriously," said Lisa Taylor, a Labor Department personnel clerk.
A few people said they were more concerned about the future of the nation than their own problems right now.
"This country, if we go to war, we've got to pull together," said Nancy R. Kesteven, an NIH secretary. "How can you be concerned about your job when lives are at stake? There will be sacrifices, and when people are asked to sacrifice, they come through."
"I don't think you've got to be a political pundit to know that we have serious financial problems in the United States," said Richard Corso, who works at the U.S. Geological Survey headquarters in Reston. "We're taking the possibility of furloughs seriously, and I think you have to anticipate bad things happening."
Johnny Futrell Jr., a clerk-typist at the Labor Department, said many of his fellow employees are saying, "Oh, here we go again," but then are wondering, "Are they actually going to go through with it?"
Some are thinking about second jobs. Martha Alliston, a computer systems analyst at NIH, is worried because she just bought a condominium. "If they cut my salary a little bit," she said, "I'd go to the Hecht Company and get a part-time job."
"If you're going to be furloughed one day a week for the rest of the year, how do you find part-time work?" asked Don Finley, assistant director of public affairs at the geological survey's Reston headquarters. "That's going to be a financial hardship for a lot of people."
A furlough would have less impact on the region now than it would have two decades ago. Less than one-fifth of nonmilitary jobs here are federal, compared with more than one-quarter in 1970. Still, the government remains the region's largest single employer, with a $16.2 billion annual nonmilitary payroll and 360,000 workers.
A furlough's impact would depend on how it is timed -- being imposed over a period of months is better than all at once, said Stephen S. Fuller, chairman of George Washington University's Department of Urban and Regional Planning.
The impact also would depend on who is furloughed: Higher-paid workers could absorb a pay cut by raiding their savings accounts; lower-paid workers who must spend every dime to live could not, he said.
Fuller views the threat of furloughs as the latest in a series of economic warnings -- a flat real estate market, crumbling consumer sales, banks gone belly-up -- that add up to make people behave more cautiously. The first things to go, he said, are meals at fancy restaurants, out-of-town vacations and other luxuries.
"On top of everything else, it sends another signal to the economy and the unaffected consumers," he said. "It's going to affect everybody psychologically: 'If it happens to them, it could happen to me.' "
Even if the furloughs are called off, the mere threat may make government employees and others more conservative in their spending habits, further depressing the local economy.
"It really does poison the attitude," Fuller said. "Consumer behavior is very emotional."
Staff writers Retha Hill, Jon Meacham and Daniel Pink contributed to this report.