Furloughed Workers Across the Nation Feel the Pain of Congressional Gridlock

Samantha Williams of Arkansas, future employee of Senate Page Program in October 2013.
National Journal
National Journal staff
Oct. 6, 2013, 7:21 a.m.

The gov­ern­ment shut­down that goes in­to its second week on Tues­day — un­less Con­gress reaches agree­ment by Monday night on a stop­gap spend­ing bill — has more than 800,000 fed­er­al work­ers around the coun­try out of work, out of a paycheck, and out of pa­tience. While the work stop­page con­tin­ues, Na­tion­al Journ­al Daily will ask some of those pub­lic ser­vants to share stor­ies of what they and all Amer­ic­ans are miss­ing without their gov­ern­ment at full strength.

Re­mem­ber Our Motto, Con­gress

While Con­gress con­tin­ues work­ing to try to end the gov­ern­ment shut­down, Sheila Bailey wishes she had that op­por­tun­ity. “I’m ready to get back to work; I’m tired of house­work,” she said. “Go­ing to work is a lot more fun than do­ing laun­dry.”

Bailey’s job — when she’s not fur­loughed — is ac­tu­ally fun: She ex­per­i­ments on sol­ar power for NASA’s Glenn Re­search Cen­ter in Clev­e­land. Her latest pro­ject? Work­ing on a space sol­ar-cell ar­ray to power satel­lites and, per­haps someday, plan­et­ary bases.

“It’s il­leg­al for me to work [dur­ing the shut­down], so I brought home some won­der­ful, en­ter­tain­ing lit­er­at­ure,” Bailey said. Her read­ing ma­ter­i­al just so happened to in­clude “quite a few pa­pers” on sol­ar power. Laugh­ing, she ima­gined a po­ten­tial head­line: “Lady Crim­in­ally Pro­sec­uted for Tak­ing Home Photo­vol­ta­ic Lit­er­at­ure.”

This isn’t Bailey’s first go-around with a gov­ern­ment shut­down: The 28-year NASA vet­er­an was fur­loughed in 1995 as well. The dif­fer­ence? “There was less sur­prise this time,” she said. “Per­haps there was more of a shock in ‘95 that this could hap­pen.”

Today’s grid­locked Con­gress, she said, made the cur­rent shut­down less of a blind­side. “It seems like a pretty dys­func­tion­al group of people,” Bailey said. NASA fund­ing cuts over the years have caused her to fol­low polit­ics closely as de­cisions in Wash­ing­ton af­fect her own work­place. She has seen staff in her re­search de­part­ment cut in half since she star­ted.

Did Con­gress con­sider people like her be­fore it went in­to shut­down mode? Bailey laughed loudly. “Oh, I’m cer­tainly for­got­ten in that mix,” she said.

As a sci­ent­ist, Bailey said the ac­tions of Con­gress are baff­ling to her. “I’m very used to fol­low­ing the laws of phys­ics,” she said. “Ap­par­ently the laws of polit­ics seem to be this mys­tic­al, ever-chan­ging sub­set.”

Though her cur­rent frus­tra­tions are high, the shut­down isn’t the start of her beef with Con­gress. “It’s en­dem­ic of the stu­pid­ity that’s run­ning rampant over there,” she said. The “short-sighted” gov­ern­ment has made cuts to im­port­ant pro­grams — like hers — without think­ing of the con­sequences.

“There needs to be a vig­or­ous re­in­vest­ment of the re­search and de­vel­op­ment part of our coun­try’s as­sets,” Bailey said. “They can’t seem to get bey­ond their con­stitu­en­cies and look at the big pic­ture.”

She’s not op­tim­ist­ic the shut­down will be re­solved soon, either. “I’m ex­pect­ing them, idi­ots that they are, that it will go down to the wire for the debt ceil­ing,” Bailey said. “I hope I’m wrong.”

So what would she tell the politi­cians that have her on fur­lough? “I’d try to re­mind them of our motto: E pluribus un­um. Out of many, one,” Bailey said. “Can they not get that to­geth­er?”

Alex Brown

Non­starter in the Sen­ate

Sam­antha Wil­li­ams, 25, was sched­uled to be­gin work as a proc­tor with the Sen­ate Page Pro­gram on Monday, but re­ceived word last week that her start date would be delayed in­def­in­itely as a res­ult of the gov­ern­ment shut­down. She had planned to move to Wash­ing­ton last Fri­day, but now will re­main in Arkan­sas, where she has worked for the past year and a half as an out­reach and events co­ordin­at­or for Gov. Mike Beebe.

For now, Wil­li­ams is in a sort of pur­gat­ory — hired, but not of­fi­cially on the fed­er­al em­ploy­ment rolls. “I’m very lucky in that un­like most oth­er fur­loughed em­ploy­ees, I am able to keep my job un­til the shut­down’s over,” Wil­li­ams said last week. “So I will be stay­ing on with the gov­ernor un­til the page pro­gram calls and says the shut­down is over, and we will be able to hire you.”

Wil­li­ams will be provided with hous­ing through her new job — she will over­see the Sen­ate pages in their dorm­it­ory in Wash­ing­ton. She re­cog­nizes that she is for­tu­nate in this re­spect, not hav­ing to face the pro­spect of re­lo­cat­ing — and find­ing a home — without in­come.

Of the shut­down, Wil­li­ams says that based on news re­ports, “I don’t think any­body at this point has any idea when it’s go­ing to end,” in­clud­ing law­makers. She is hope­ful that Con­gress will reach agree­ment on fund­ing the gov­ern­ment be­fore Oct. 17, when Treas­ury Sec­ret­ary Jac­ob Lew has said the coun­try will reach the debt ceil­ing.

Court­ney McBride

Let Them Eat Cake

On day one of the gov­ern­ment shut­down, Juri Schauer­mann made a red vel­vet cake with cream-cheese frost­ing.

On day two, the NASA em­ploy­ee caught up on Dex­ter, a Show­time drama about a hom­icid­al forensic sci­ent­ist. “That day went by so fast,” she said.

On day three, she went to the casino with an­oth­er fur­loughed friend. “I did really well.”

In short, the shut­down has been like a “sur­prise va­ca­tion,” Schauer­mann says. “I’m not rest­less at all “¦ al­though I do won­der if I’ll get paid even­tu­ally. My hus­band is a NASA con­tract­or, so I’m pretty sure he won’t be.”

Like Schauer­mann, many of her col­leagues at NASA are non­plussed. “I went in on Monday to ac­cept my fur­lough no­tice and fill in my time sheet. No one there really cared about the shut­down; no one had much of an opin­ion.” The lone ex­cep­tion was one of her su­per­i­ors, who had been look­ing for­ward to resid­ing his house but was re­quired to come in. “He was mad.”

Schauer­mann, 39, at­ten­ded Johns Hop­kins Uni­versity and has worked at NASA for the last 18 years. She lives out­side Wash­ing­ton, in Mary­land.

Chris­toph­er Snow Hop­kins

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