Shock, confusion, and ingenuity marked this historic week for federal employees. Several shared their stories on the Federal Drive. Together, they paint a portrait of a government that is OK for now. But it’s also clear, agency contingency plans are not made to last.
Federal buildings are eerily quiet. At the Merit Systems Protection Board, “There’s no mail. There are no calls. There are no pleadings that are being filed and there are no e-appeals,” said Chairman Susan Tsui Grundmann. She is one of three appointed board members working, along with a handful of staff. “Teamwork and a sense of humor” are helping them get by, he said. The board members are deciding cases, only to put the files in an empty room because there is no one to publish them.
Similarly, while the military is not furloughed, Army Assistant Secretary for Installations, Energy and Environment Katherine Hammack described her office as “a bit of a ghost town.” About half of the service’s civilian employees are on furlough, she said. Thus, when she needs research or data, she has no one to turn to. Her big plans to celebrate Energy Awareness Month through activities on bases, at schools and in military communities will have to wait as well.
“Some things may never get done, and that is unfortunate because there are people who put time and effort into this,” she said.
But the hardest part, Hammack said, is the financial uncertainty. “Many civilians are working on IOUs,” she said. “I’m coming to work with no guarantee of a paycheck.”
Federal employees at home this week also told us they worried about money. But, it’s not all grim. An anonymous federal employee who identified herself as a GS-15 called Federal News Radio’s comment line to say she needed this break from her normally hectic work routine.
“I’m completely overwhelmed, overworked in my regular job,” she said, adding that she got up to 400 emails a day and never felt completely caught up. “When I heard Congress was shutting down government, I was so excited,” she said.
We caught up with Janet Benini as she was painting her kitchen a “terra-cotta” color. She had already tackled the living room. “My husband is a little worried because I’m running out of rooms and I’m not sure how I’ll work out my anxiety after that,” she said.
As the Transportation Department associate director for international preparedness, Benini had expected to spend this week finalizing plans for two high-level international emergency-planning events. She conceded that the shutdown made the United States look like “a bunch of idiots who can’t get anything done” to her counterparts in the Chinese Ministry of Transport and elsewhere.
For other federal employees, this week has recalled memories of the last government shutdown in 1995-1996.
Cindy Blythe is a management program analyst in Topeka, Kan., for the Coast Guard. She said she may have to cut back on Christmas presents for her grandkids if the shutdown lingers. But she offered these words of advice for fellow feds: “This too shall pass.”
Tom Temin is the host of The Federal Drive, which airs from 6-8 a.m. on 1500 AM in the Washington, D.C. region and online everywhere. Tom has 30 years experience in journalism, mostly in technology markets. Before coming to Federal News Radio, he was a long-serving editor-in-chief of Government Computer News and Washington Technology magazines.