The Washington Post

In D.C., snow day separates essential workers from non

People like Camilo Poveda who work in the service industry become very essential in snowstorms like Wednesday’s. He’s shown at the Coupe coffee shop in Columbia Heights. (Marvin Joseph/THE WASHINGTON POST)

In one of the world’s most self-important cities, all it takes is a snow day to separate the essential personnel from those who simply wish they were.

Which are you?

“I’d really rather not say,” said a 27-year-old federal employee who would give only a first name: Rebecca. She’s sipping a mimosa and eating a bowl of corned beef hash at the Coupe coffee shop in Columbia Heights.

“I find that question offensive, the terminology somewhat demoralizing,” said Sara Farley, who heads a global development nonprofit. She was working next to a row of Washington folks seated on stools around the cafe’s long breakfast bar. They all felt compelled to work, even though they didn’t have to.

In this sequester era of looming job cuts and furloughs for federal employees and contractors, being anything but essential is a frightening prospect.

Inside the coffeehouse, Farley had her laptop open, a plastic portable microphone set up and a thick slice of banana bread at her side. She was going to Skype with a colleague at Tufts University; she’s also working on a rainwater harvesting project to help boost the incomes of Kenyan farmers. “Not essential here. But essential to many others,” she laughed.

On a snow day, though, she’s not as essential as, say, Evan Berger, 24, the barista making the lattes.

“I’ve been here since 5 a.m.” he said wearily.

Rebecca Bilbro was reading “Snuggle Puppy” to Oscar, her 2-year-old son. As she confessed that she is a nonessential employee at the Labor Department, Oscar pulled on her scarf. Then he started crying. “At least my kid finds me essential,” she said.

By noon, the Coupe and other nearby bars and restaurants were packed with nonessentials.

And the most important man in Washington became John Seymore, 39, of Baltimore, who had been up since 2:30 a.m. He’s the meat-delivery guy for Sysco foods and he was on his fifth delivery of the day, this one to Merdian Pint restaurant. He had six more to go.

Seymore was drenched, his work boots covered in slush, his nose red and running.

“It's essential I keep my job and feed my three kids,” he said, rushing to haul the deliveries out of the icy rain.

To be essential means to be “of the utmost importance: basic, indispensable, necessary,” according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary.

It doesn’t really look like this:

“Do you have to use my last name?” said Seth, 23, who is a staffer for a senator and was playing Settlers of Catan with a table full of friends at the Kangaroo Boxing Club, a bar and restaurant, and enjoying a round of hot toddies.

So ask yourself: Were you at work on Wednesday? Or were you ordering one of the Boxing Club’s Snow Day specials: caramelized pastrami with baked eggs inside a pile of onion rings or $3 “no-work” Jameson shots?

Say it proud, Washington!

“We are the nonessential,” Seth’s table cheered.



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