Playing Ping-Pong With Federal Workers

National Journal
Elahe Izad and Christopher Snow Hopkins
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Elahe Izad Christopher Snow Hopkins
Oct. 1, 2013, 4:43 p.m.

As Con­gress wrangles over how to fund the gov­ern­ment, fed­er­al em­ploy­ees are among the ma­jor cas­u­al­ties.

Fur­loughed work­ers — there are an es­tim­ated 800,000 — lose money and gain free time. And they of­ten con­front one of the most un­com­fort­able ques­tions one can face in Wash­ing­ton: Just how im­port­ant are you?

As one Demo­crat­ic House staffer put it, “Noth­ing breeds con­tempt more than lin­ing people up and say­ing, “˜I need you and not you.’”

In fed­er­al work­places across the cap­it­al, em­ploy­ees are be­ing cat­egor­ized as either es­sen­tial or non­es­sen­tial, those who can stay and those who must go. Con­gress it­self is not im­mune. The very law­makers who, locked in a par­tis­an fight over a short-term fund­ing bill, shot past Tues­day’s dead­line to pass a budget deal are now them­selves be­ing asked to make tough choices.

For in­stance, Sen. Joe Manchin had his Wash­ing­ton of­fice shrink from 27 to 11 and his West Vir­gin­ia staff cut from 17 to two. “After lunch we’ll be bare bones,” said Sen. Saxby Cham­b­liss of Geor­gia, whose staff of 30 could fall to as few as four. “Nobody will be there” to an­swer con­stitu­ent calls, he said. “They’ll get to hear my mes­sage.”

Agen­cies had been pre­par­ing for a while, but the gov­ern­ment shut­down still came as a sur­prise to some. “No one thought it would hap­pen,” said a fur­loughed De­part­ment of Justice em­ploy­ee. “We didn’t start dis­cuss­ing it in de­tail un­til Monday.” The form­al email ask­ing em­ploy­ees to make pre­par­a­tions to be out of the of­fice Tues­day — in­clud­ing set­ting up an out-of-of­fice reply — was sent Monday af­ter­noon.

The DOJ em­ploy­ee said he woke up Tues­day morn­ing and watched the news, as staffers had been ad­vised to do, to de­term­ine wheth­er to come in­to the of­fice. “If you’re non­es­sen­tial, you’re not even al­lowed to check your [work] Black­Berry,” he said. The con­cern is that this would be con­sidered vo­lun­teer work, which is il­leg­al for those em­ploy­ees who have been fur­loughed without pay. “You may get an email from your su­per­visor, but you’re not sup­posed to look at it.”

As fed­er­al em­ploy­ees were sor­ted by bosses — some­times pub­licly — many took com­fort in each oth­er, to­geth­er en­dur­ing the first day of the first gov­ern­ment shut­down in 17 years. Some, for ex­ample, gathered at the Sixth & I Syn­agogue, a cul­tur­al haven in Chin­atown, for themed snacks, a West Wing mara­thon — even games of polit­ic­al ping-pong.

On hand were refugees from Cap­it­ol Hill, the Gov­ern­ment Ac­count­ab­il­ity Of­fice, and the De­part­ments of Com­merce, De­fense, In­teri­or, and Labor, as well as some party crash­ers not on the gov­ern­ment payroll. Without ex­cep­tion, these “non­es­sen­tial” per­son­nel were per­plexed by the la­bel.

“There’s no in­put or reas­on­ing to who’s es­sen­tial and who’s non­es­sen­tial,” said one De­fense De­part­ment em­ploy­ee, who asked not to be iden­ti­fied be­cause he was not au­thor­ized to speak to the press.

“It’s kind of ri­dicu­lous,” ad­ded his co­hort, also from De­fense. “I’m skep­tic­al of some of the con­gres­sion­al jobs that have been deemed “˜es­sen­tial.’ “

Oth­ers seemed dazed by the con­gres­sion­al mach­in­a­tions that pre­cip­it­ated the crisis.

“It still feels a bit sur­real that this is hap­pen­ing,” said Mat­thew Gever, a GAO health care ana­lyst. “When the count­down was go­ing on, we all thought, “˜They’ll come up with something.’ I’d prefer to be at work. It’s my job and I like do­ing it. I’d prefer to be there and not here.”

“Today and to­mor­row should be OK be­cause I did some over­time last week,” the DOJ em­ploy­ee said. “But after that it stops be­ing fun and starts be­ing stress­ful.”

“I would rather be get­ting paid,” ad­ded an of­fi­cial with the Labor De­part­ment. “The West Wing does take the sting out. As I’ve said on Face­book, you’ve got to make lem­on­ade out of the situ­ation.”

One De­fense em­ploy­ee said his agency was par­tic­u­larly hard hit. He had been told that ap­prox­im­ately 50 per­cent of the de­part­ment’s em­ploy­ees were fur­loughed in the fisc­al 1996 fights, but this year, he es­tim­ated up to 98 per­cent were sent home.

“We had four hours max this morn­ing to close everything down,” he said. “When people were log­ging in to down­load the un­em­ploy­ment form, the serv­er crashed. They later sent us a stand­ard form with the name blacked out. I’m not even sure that will be ac­cep­ted.”

Non­ethe­less, the mood was fest­ive at Sixth & I, with a smat­ter­ing of ap­plause when The West Wing’s Pres­id­ent Bart­lett made his first ap­pear­ance on screen. To ac­com­mod­ate the an­ti­cip­ated turnout, a rabbi hauled a leath­er sofa up sev­er­al flights of stairs. As com­mu­nic­a­tions man­ager Han­nah Oren­stein ex­plained, “We chose The West Wing be­cause of the fam­ous shut­down epis­ode.”

By noon, the snacks had be­gun to dis­ap­pear as party­go­ers paused from polit­ic­al ping-pong with the faces of John Boehner, Nancy Pelosi, Harry Re­id, and Mitch Mc­Con­nell pas­ted on the paddles — a nod to the le­gis­lat­ive vol­leys between the House and Sen­ate in re­cent days — to re­plen­ish them­selves. The smor­gas­bord in­cluded “Le­gis­lat­ive-ADE,” “Cin­na­mon Roll Calls,” and a crate of or­anges labeled “John Boehner.”

The Sixth & I Syn­agogue, which has oc­cu­pied its cur­rent loc­a­tion in the Chin­atown neigh­bor­hood since 1908, is a mag­net for the city’s cul­tur­al elite. The syn­agogue is not just a house of wor­ship, but a sec­u­lar in­sti­tu­tion with book sign­ings, con­certs, and oth­er cul­tur­al events. It de­rives some of its cachet from the grande dame in the ex­ec­ut­ive suite. Es­th­er Safran Fo­er is the moth­er of Jonath­an Safran Fo­er, au­thor of the 2005 nov­el Ex­tremely Loud and In­cred­ibly Close, and Frank­lin Fo­er, ed­it­or of The New Re­pub­lic.

“We ac­tu­ally didn’t think we’d get a lot of people,” said Es­th­er Fo­er, who serves as ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or. “But dur­ing Hur­ricane Sandy, in­sti­tu­tions opened their doors, and we thought it’d be a nice thing to do.”

Fo­er said the idea hit her earli­er this week.

“I woke up yes­ter­day morn­ing and said to my hus­band, “˜You know, the gov­ern­ment is shut­ting down, and we’re a com­munity in­sti­tu­tion, and we need to do something for our com­munity,’ “ she said. “I sent a memo to the staff at 9:30 a.m. that said, “˜Why don’t we do a shut­down café?’ “

Clara Rit­ger and Soph­ie No­vack con­trib­uted

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