Workers Wonder Just How Long the Weekend Will Be
By EDWARD WYATT
WASHINGTON — One federal worker had planned to take his family to Colonial Williamsburg this weekend. Someone decided that he was an “essential worker,” however, meaning that Sasha and Malia Obama might not get to roll a hoop and churn butter with their dad after all.
In this city of hundreds of thousands of government workers, President Obama was one of the few who, as of Thursday evening, had a clear idea of what his duties would be in the event of a government shutdown. Some in the rank and file expressed a bit of frustration and even amusement as they headed home, not knowing if Friday night would bring the start of a just another weekend or a more extended and possibly unpaid absence.
“No concrete information has come down from higher up,” said Pierre Georges, an employee at the Federal Emergency Management Agency who was on his way through the L’Enfant Plaza subway station. “Right now it’s pretty much rumors.”
Even official memos that were flying around town offered only vague, legalistic and often indecipherable instructions. A 16-page memo from theOffice of Management and Budget told managers that employees could not work from home, check their voice mail or use laptops or BlackBerrys, and that they must take no more than three or four hours to come in and shut down their offices.
And for employees deemed “nonessential,” it will take an act of Congress to pay them later. If they have loan payments due to a federal workers’ credit union or a retirement account, those payments would not be excused.
“We were told that back in ’95 when they shut down they did retroactive pay for employees,” said a midlevel manager in the Department of Veterans Affairs, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “This time we were told there would be no retroactive pay.”
Unless Congress decides otherwise, that is, once it gets around to passing a budget. “Congress is not clear on what they’re doing,” the manager said, “so I can’t fault upper management of any government agency for not giving clear instructions. Because they’re just as in the dark as we are.”
The prospect of a few days without answering e-mail has delighted some federal workers.
“Those of us with small children will appreciate not having to respond when we see the blinking red light on our BlackBerry,” said an assistant to a senior official at the Federal Communications Commission. “I think a lot of people would welcome a shutdown if it only takes three or four days.”
Others took umbrage at the idea that government workers were being cast as part of the problem. “The majority of federal workers are proud of what we do,” said one Labor Department employee who has been told that he is “nonessential,” and who therefore will be furloughed in case of a shutdown.
“We believe in our mission, and we’re dedicated and passionate about our work,” he said. “And we don’t fit this stereotype of people who just suck up pay but don’t perform.”
An extended shutdown undoubtedly will cause financial problems for some of the 800,000 government employees nationwide who would be furloughed. Credit unions on Thursday began offering “furlough loans” and other types of assistance to employees who might be idled.
The credit union for NASA employees said it would offer “a zero percent interest paycheck and furlough relief loan.” At the Transportation Department, the credit union said members could apply for a loan for up to two weeks of net pay, not to exceed $3,000.
Many government agencies offer on-site child care, and some of those centers will have to close because the buildings they are in will be shuttered. While that will not affect parents who are on furlough, it could strike at the plans of essential workers who have to show up for duty and for the private-sector employees who also use the centers.
Bridget Perry, a spokeswoman for Bright Horizons, the company that operates the centers, said most of them would remain open, to serve government employees who still have to work and to take overflow from closed centers.
In total, perhaps fewer than half of the 1.9 million federal workers are likely to be furloughed, but there is little rhyme or reason to how it is done.
Everyone at the Patent and Trademark Office will be able to work for at least six days because the office has spare funds from filing fees.
At the Federal Highway Administration, even secretaries must report for duty because the agency is financed through gas tax proceeds and a trust fund.
The Central Intelligence Agency does have some nonessential employees — though one agency official warned: “No terrorist or nuclear proliferator should think the C.I.A. is going to be off the job.”
And anyone put on furlough had better toe the line, according to various memos from on high. “Working in any way during a period of furlough (even as a volunteer) is grounds for disciplinary action, up to and including termination of employment,” one read.
Notwithstanding that directive, Mr. Obama on Thursday signed a proclamation to mark National Volunteer Week, which begins on Sunday. “I call upon Americans to observe this week,” he said, “by volunteering in service projects across our country.”