Federal Employees Respond to the Partial Government Shutdown

After lasting 35 days, the longest shutdown of the U.S. government ended Friday, Jan. 27, when President Trump signed a bipartisan stopgap spending measure. The partial shutdown affected 800,000 federal employees and roughly a quarter of government agencies.

Federal employees’ reactions to the shutdown ranged from frustration to anger to disappointment.

A pair of TSA employees at Reagan National Airport in Washington D.C. said that they both felt like they were “hostages” in political warfare, being used by political parties that just care about their own wants and goals.

There were no visible signs of anger or resentment in their attitudes as the workers, who declined to be named, described coming in every day to work their nine-to-ten-hour shifts. Both in their thirties, the workers were waiting in line to purchase dinner as they portrayed the overall mood of their fellow employees as malcontent and disenfranchised.

Monika Sabalis, 53, has been working for Social Security for 18 years as a counselor on Medicare, survivor and disability benefits. Sabalis knows two families with members who had been furloughed by the shutdown. The families were paying bills with their savings, as most workers did, and were worried about the possibility of emptying their readily available funds before the shutdown ended.

“They were upset that the President and Congress were not able to come to an agreement and were not even negotiating – as if their predicament did not matter to each side,” said Sabalis.

Gene Patton, 60, began his government service in 1970. He has been with the Criminal Division of the Department of Justice for two decades. Like Sabalis, the recent shutdown was the third of his career.

Patton was in an ‘excepted’ status and was still working during the shutdown. “It is deeply embarrassing and disappointing to know that government has become so dysfunctional,” he said.

Patton expressed that he and many other “dedicated public servants recognize that shutdowns represent a failure of leadership and compromise toward a common goal.”

During a shutdown, government agencies divide workers into two categories. Those that are considered ‘emergency essential’ or ‘excepted’ are required to continue working without pay. ‘Non-essential’ workers are furloughed, meaning they are temporarily laid off.

Many federal employees missed their first paycheck 21 days into the recent shutdown. Two weeks later, on Jan. 25, employees missed a second one.

All of the unpaid government workers faced the bleak realities of the shutdown, as some turned to food banks for assistance and a record amount of 36,000 workers applied for unemployment benefits.

“The shutdown is tough on those that do not have savings, or very little, and those who do not have family to borrow money from,” said Sabalis.

“Much of the news reporting has stressed the financial impact on workers who are not getting paid for an extended period. While this is demoralizing, most of my colleagues are more concerned about the serious work that is being postponed than they are about their personal financial difficulties,” Patton said.

The two TSA employees expressed a similar sentiment. While Reagan National Airport employs roughly 700 TSA personnel, overall the news was exaggerated, as massive cut-offs did not actually occur there, said one of the workers.

Although the recent shutdown did not affect her agency, Sabalis experienced two other shutdowns in 2013 and 2018, the former lasting a total of 16 days.

In 2013, she was considered an ‘emergency essential employee’, and had to work without being paid. Sabalis recalled the difficulty of being barred from time off to take her mother to doctor’s appointments.

“The longer [the shutdown] went on, the more concerned I was about whether we would be paid back,” Sabalis said. Once a shutdown ends, there is no certainty that employees will be paid retroactively.

Fortunately, the bill approved by Congress and signed into law by Trump on Friday, Jan. 25 provides back pay for all excepted and furloughed employees, to be paid as soon as possible.

What the measure does not provide, however, is paychecks for federal contractors, including janitors, security guards and cafeteria staff who already receive low wages.

As the spending measure only provides funding for three weeks, and Congress and the president are still locked within political debate, the possibility of another shutdown cannot be completely dismissed.

“The [recent] shutdown was the second one in 2018, and the third one since 2013. It seems as if they are getting more frequent and somehow an accepted way for the President and Congress to govern,” said Sabalis.

To Patton, the ones who suffer the most from a government shutdown are those who make great personal sacrifices, such as officers who apprehend fugitives and prosecutors who spend time away from their families. They are dedicated individuals who work in difficult jobs with less pay than they could earn in regular jobs, he said.

“They have a bond with the citizens of this great country. When that bond is not respected or when their service is used as extortion in some political brinksmanship move, we are all less than we should be,” said Patton.

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