‘A huge pain’: Government shutdown idles hundreds of thousands of federal workers, contractors

From The Washington Post:

The sky was gray on Monday as the government shutdown left hundreds of thousands of federal employees in the Washington region in an anxious, uncompensated limbo — again.

But even as they were leaving their offices after packing up, Senate leaders announced that they may have reached a deal to reopen by the end of the day.

This is Margaret McDaniel’s third shutdown, but the 27-year employee of the Agriculture Department said she feels more financially secure than she did during the month-long furlough that straddled 1995 and 1996 or the 16-day disruption in 2013. But the senior adviser in the Foreign Agriculture Service remembers how unnerving it was to be a lower-level employee in an expensive city when she didn’t know how long her pay would be frozen.

“There are a lot of people who don’t have much of a buffer,” McDaniel said.

She is less confident than she was during the previous shutdowns that the missing paychecks will be made up later. “This time I just don’t know,” she said. “Everything is different with this administration.”

One thing that is the same: her frustration about politicians who can’t run the government properly, no matter which party’s issues are at the center of the fight.

“I don’t care who’s shutting it down,” she said. “I thought it was irresponsible every time.”

The Washington region is home to the largest concentration of federal employees and contractors in the country, with 367,000 who work for the government and 450,000 who depend on federal contracts, said Stephen S. Fuller, an economist at George Mason University who noted that about a quarter of the area’s economy depends on federal payroll or procurement spending.

“It is a huge pain in the ass,” said a researcher on his way into the National Institutes of Health on Monday morning. The man, who declined to give his name, had come in to stop a stem-cell experiment designed to determine the cause of a disease that affects facial bones.

He worried about the effect on the NIH Clinical Center, where many people are treated with last-ditch experimental therapies.

“Nobody can be recruited to clinical trials” during the shutdown, he said. “We’re talking about cancers and pediatric cancers. So now we’re talking about children who won’t get treatment if it goes on.”

Frustrations were just as high outside the State Department, where furloughed employees came to the office to conduct what was being called an “orderly shutdown” — writing out-of-office email messages, canceling appointments and securing files. They then had to sign papers acknowledging the furlough before they could go home, under strict instructions to turn off their work cellphones and not discuss work with non-furloughed employees.

The exact number of employees furloughed was not immediately known, although the number is expected to far exceed those affected by the 2013 shutdown when the State Department lost 4,000 hours of work.

For this shutdown, 63 percent of workers have been designated eligible for furloughs. But because some bureaus have money from two-year appropriations, and others generate fees that allow them to continue operating, not all of them will be furloughed.

As a result, every U.S. embassy and consulate overseas remains open. And many passport offices are still processing passport applications, unless they are located in federal buildings that are closed because of the shutdown. Every bureau within the State Department remains open, although in some cases they are maintained with only a skeleton staff.

The sidewalks outside the building in Foggy Bottom were packed with employees walking in both directions. The furloughed workers, many with a look of grim resignation on their faces, left carrying sheets of paper outlining the rules and their acknowledgment of receipt.

“I’m going to go home and go back to sleep,” said one Foreign Service officer who declined to provide her name or the bureau in which she works.

She said she had arrived at 8:30 a.m. and spent two hours fulfilling the orderly shutdown protocol before heading back home. She described the mood in her bureau as one of “everyone shrugging our shoulders.”

“We’re all watching the OPM website,” she said, referring to the Office of Personnel Management — “and the news.”

She said some of her furloughed co-workers spent part of the morning trying to sneak in a last bit of work.

“Everyone’s itching to work,” she said. “It shows how dedicated everyone is. Some people got on their computers, and colleagues said, ‘Stop it. You’re not allowed to work.’ ”

She said views vary on who’s to blame for the shutdown.

“It depends on your political leanings,” she said. “It’s something that surely could have been averted.”

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