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
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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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