‘It’s like the factory shut down’: for Washington region, furlough’s impact is acute

From The Washington Post:

On Monday morning, Steve Polkinghorn will start his difficult daily journey to work about 5 a.m. Polkinghorn, a manager with the U.S. Agency for International Development who has ­multiple sclerosis, will wheel his walker out of his home in Burke, Va., and board a MetroAccess van bound for Crystal City.

Polkinghorn will spend a few hours at work setting out-of-office email and phone messages, locking up essential equipment and preparing to be furloughed.

Then he’ll wait.

Wait until the van — already scheduled for 4:30 p.m. — returns to take him home.

Wait for the furlough to end.

“If I come in for a half-day, I have to sit around for the other half,” he said Sunday as he pored through federal shutdown guidelines to determine what was required of him. “It is very frustrating in that Congress can’t get their job done and we pay the penalty.”

As the shutdown entered its first workweek, politicians pointed fingers, states scrambled to fill the gaps and people across the country rolled their eyes at yet another example of U.S. government gridlock.

But for the Washington region, which boasts the largest concentration of federal employees and contractors in the country, the shutdown could have particularly serious consequences.

Like farmers with their eyes to the sky during a drought, many in the region began nervously wondering how long the shutdown would last, and how much it would cost them.

“No one has more to lose from shutdown brinkmanship than the capital region,” Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) said in an email.

“If you viewed this as a company town, it’s like the factory shut down, and we don’t know when it’s going to reopen,” Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.) said.

It appeared late Sunday that the shutdown would continue at least until a Senate meeting to vote scheduled for around noon Monday.

Up to a quarter of the region’s workforce of 3.2 million people could be affected by the shutdown, according to Stephen S. Fuller, an economist at George Mason University. He noted that 367,000 federal employees and 450,000 federal contractors live in the Washington area. He said 25 percent to 30 percent of the region’s economy is dependent on federal payroll or procurement spending.

“It’s hard to point to an economy in the country where one company represents between 25 and 30 percent of local GDP,” said Fuller, who last year founded the Stephen S. Fuller Institute for Research on the Washington Region’s Economic Future.

Connolly cited statistics showing the region could lose an estimated $200 million per day in economic productivity, including the losses for small businesses catering to government employees.

“You know if you were running a lunch shop near the IRS and 80 percent of the IRS workforce is not going to work, you’ve lost a lot of your business for the duration of the shutdown,” he said. “They really have no recourse. That’s what so very sad, and some of these are family-run businesses.”

“Our region’s federal workers and contractors should not be pawns in national policy debates,” Matt Letourneau, chairman of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, said in a statement.

“The DMV region is resilient, but the disruptions caused by a federal government shutdown bring unnecessary stress to all those involved,” said Letourneau, who also is a Republican supervisor in Loudoun County.

In response to the shutdown, local governments pledged to pick up the slack where the federal government left off.

“I want to be perfectly clear that Washington, D.C., is open,” Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) said Friday, explaining that city services would remain functioning as normal.

Bowser announced the city would pick up trash at about 126 National Park Service sites and would possibly step in to maintain roads, such as Beach Drive, that fall under federal government purview.

The cost of maintaining park sites is about $100,000 per week, officials said.

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) blasted the shutdown as “reckless and irresponsible” in a tweet over the weekend. The state announced a plan to speed up the unemployment insurance application process for federal workers, with an online application and dedicated phone lines for affected residents. Hogan said the state is home to nearly 150,000 federal government workers.

“Let me be very clear to everyone in Washington, both Republicans and Democrats — stop the finger-pointing and do your jobs,” Hogan said in a statement.

It was not immediately known what measures Virginia was taking to head off the impacts of the shutdown. In a weekend statement, Gov. Ralph Northam (D) chastised federal officials for their inability to reach a compromise.

“Virginia cannot afford this dysfunction,” he said. “Last night Congress demonstrated that it would rather play political games than give millions of Americans, many of whom live in Virginia, the certainty they deserve about their paychecks, their health care and many other important issues.”

Some federal employees said they worried they won’t be fully paid for the unexpected furlough.

“There is a fear that they won’t reimburse us for any money lost,” said a Library of Congress employee who lives in Maryland and went through the 2013 shutdown. “It’s never guaranteed. It’s up to Congress to decide.”

Federal employees did receive back pay after the 2013 shutdown.

Others said that even if they are paid, the possibility of going weeks until the shutdown ends and that paycheck arrives would disrupt their personal finances.

“It feels very ominous,” said Ben Kubaryk, an analyst at the Bureau of Labor Statistics who said he, too, would spend four hours Monday preparing for the furlough.

“I have a mortgage to pay,” he said. “Not knowing how long this is going to go on is what causes the anxiety.”

By sifting federal employees into pools of “essential” and “nonessential” work, the shutdown can also have a psychological effect, Connolly said.

“This is a terrible psychic blow to so many of them who justifiably take pride in what they do and who they are,” he said, “and for their Congress to send this kind of message is just very debilitating.”

Some public servants said the “nonessential” tag was a demoralizing slap in the face.

“I’m passionate about aviation,” said a Federal Aviation Administration employee who is working on future air traffic control systems. “It’s disturbing to me when we’re looked at with disdain because of the environment that’s foisted upon us.”

Nearly 18,000 staff members, or 39 percent of the FAA’s total, are set to be furloughed, according to an updated plan released Friday by the Transportation Department. Some have been asked to come in Monday to set up out-of-office messages and make other preparation.

The FAA employee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said he expects to work during the furlough despite explicit instructions many employees have received not to, because, he said, the work he does is important to the country — and to him. “If I don’t get paid, I don’t get paid,” he said.

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