This was, without a doubt, the Monday-est of Mondays.
There were the regular Monday things, like when your brain’s still stuck on Saturday afternoon at the park.
And the Monday-after-vacation things, like knowing the pile of work is huge, and you also forgot all your passwords.
But on this Mother of all Mondays, when about 800,000 federal workers returned to their jobs after the longest government shutdown in U.S. history, there was also a pretty huge reckoning.
“I have to be honest, returning makes me nervous,” said one of the federal workers who was welcomed with a free cinnamon roll outside her Environmental Protection Agency office Monday morning. All of them spoke only on the condition that I didn’t name them.
Nervous is not what the government worker in this company town signed up for.
Nervous is for maverick stock traders in New York, for actors who spent their last cash on a bus ticket to Hollywood, for entrepreneurs pitching to investors in Silicon Valley.
That kind of nervous has always been around.
The people who didn’t want to be nervous went elsewhere, to big stable companies.
To General Motors (47,000 layoffs in 2009). Or Bank of America (30,000 layoffs in 2011). Or General Electric Company (12,000 layoff in 2017). Or Toys R Us (30,000 layoffs in 2018).
The jobs that once made it possible to feed a family and buy a home kept vanishing. Even schoolteachers had to get side hustles to pay the rent. And nervous became a way of life for American workers.
A government job was the sensible, conservative route to take — even after a series of shutdowns. Government would always be around. And not just for secretaries and administrators. It’s the place for lawyers who don’ t want the impossible workload and operatic madness of a partnership track. It’s where scientists who don’t want to live from grant to grant go. Or where laid-off journalists can be effective spokespeople and writers.
“But this? This was awful,” said another woman going up the escalator and back to work Monday. She does computer network administration for the EPA — the kind of skill that can get her a job anywhere. She liked the stability of nearly two decades at the federal government. But she’s less committed now.
“I saw so many of my colleagues hurt by this. We got together to help each other out with food and keeping things together,” she said. “We lived through other ones. But no one ever thought it could go this long.”
And she took a couple of cinnamon rolls to bring in to the office.
The women standing at the top of the escalators at Metro’s Federal Triangle station handing out the sweets weren’t there just to thank Washington’s stable and reliable workforce for coming back to work.
They were with Moms Clean Air Force, welcoming the federal workers they called “heroes” in their signs — the EPA staff.
“Welcome back. Thank you for your work!” said Elizabeth Brandt, her 3-year-old on her hip, as she handed EPA workers valentines that her kids made. “We rely on their work to keep our kids healthy.”
Brandt’s family was affected by her husband’s furlough, she said, but she was there to remind EPA staffers that government work has honor.
And honor may be the last benefit for a government worker these days.
“A lot of people in this line of work are civic-minded,” said Molly Rauch, public health policy adviser for Moms Clean Air Force. “And their work is really important.”
I asked another woman who accepted a cinnamon roll whether she would be looking for work elsewhere after this. So many of them said they had spent part of their furloughs talking to headhunters and exploring the job market in the private sector.
But this woman was older and has spent most of her career fighting for environmentally sustainable policies. “Where else could I do this and keep making a big difference?” she said.
She was really worried, however, about the next generation of federal workers and whether the possibility that their lives could be put on hold because of political infighting would scare away earnest, civic-minded workers.
Isn’t that who we want in Washington?
One of the attorneys returning to her office at the Department of Justice said shutdowns keep everyone from doing their best work — the bane of the kind of achievers we want in government.
“I feel, going in today, like I still have to take all my finals, but I didn’t get a chance to study,” she said. “This isn’t the way to do good work.”
The truth is, this is America’s new reality, and Washington is just catching up.
Being a federal worker could become the new career gamble.
Artist Teresa Burns Parkhurst said it best in a recent Mad Magazine cartoon that sums up the state of government work these days. It’s a living room scene with two distraught parents imploring their sullen teen: “Listen, we KNOW your dream is to be a federal government employee, we’re just asking you to consider a career with more job security, like a street performer, or a poet.”