The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

'We’re all in the same boat’: Furloughed federal workers flock to AU for a day of classes and distraction

Furloughed government employees take a yoga class with teacher Lauren Kline at American University. (Evelyn Hockstein for The Washington Post)

As the partial government shutdown crept into its 18th day, furloughed federal workers gathered in American University’s Kerwin Hall and commiserated about their vacant schedules between bites of blueberry muffins.

“I think my cat is ready for me to return to work,” one said.

“I finally filed for unemployment,” another lamented.

The employees are among 550 federal workers who attended a free day of networking and skills training sessions Tuesday hosted by American University during one of the longest government shutdowns.

It is the first time American University has hosted such an event. So while the Trump administration and congressional Democrats duke it out over funding for President Trump’s Mexico border wall, hundreds of workers affected by the shutdown were learning skills such as public speaking and podcasting.

Don Eggert, a furloughed Justice Department employee, learned about the event after a friend posted the information on Facebook. He was looking for something to break up the monotony of sitting at home and running errands.

“For federal employees, our daily lives revolve around work, so when you take work away from us, there’s a big gap . . . It almost feels demoralizing,” Eggert said. “The workshop takes my mind off of things.”

American University professors and researchers volunteered to teach the classes. Molly O’Rourke, a communications professor at the university, taught a class on political polling. “A lot of members of our D.C. community are struggling, so I felt responsible to help, even if it’s just a day where people can pick up a new skill," she said. "It cushions the blow of the shutdown.”

Furloughed workers bemoaned the financial strain of their temporary unemployment. One man has had to dip into a loan he took out in December. Another withdrew hundreds of dollars from a savings account to pay his bills. A woman who has been furloughed during two government shutdowns began setting aside money in the event of another. Many workers were hesitant to share their names and places of employment with reporters because many federal agencies restrict interactions with the media.

Despite the uncertainty surrounding the duration of the shutdown, the federal workers were chatty. Kristin Duquette, a furloughed employee of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, savored the camaraderie of her colleagues who also attended the American University event.

“We’re all in the same boat. We can relate to each other’s feelings of, ‘What do we do with our time now?’ ” Duquette said. Attendees swapped phone numbers and promises to get lunch together followed.

Beyond pleasantries, Camille Howes, a furloughed employee of the Bureau of Land Management, saw the event as testament to the resilience and commitment of the American federal workforce. “On our days off, even when we’re not getting paid, we’re still here improving our work skills to better serve the American public," she said. "I think that’s a beautiful American thing.”