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Come midnight on Tuesday, if Congress doesn’t pass a continuing resolution that would fund the government, it will shut down until one can be passed. For federal workers, this means either facing a furlough or being forced to go to work without pay until the government is funded again. Close to a million federal workers who are deemed to be nonessential could be furloughed, and while they were paid back wages the last time the government shut down and reopened, there is no guarantee.
Jenny Brown, a tax examiner with the Internal Revenue Service, has already gone through three furlough days this year that cost her $200 each on top of 27 months of a pay freeze. Now she faces the possibility of more furlough days if the government shuts down. Meanwhile, she and her coworkers just found out that their health insurance premiums will be going up 3.7 percent. “Financially it hurts me,” she told ThinkProgress. If she is indeed furloughed, “I will have to change my spending” to be able to pay her bills, she said. “I won’t be doing anything extra.”
Her coworkers are also watching the news apprehensively. “We’re all just middle class employees trying to get by payday to payday.” Her coworkers are “scared to death” and frustrated that they will be kept from doing their work, which helps bring in money for the government and reduce the deficit. “Nobody knows whether to get up and go to work in the morning or not and that’s a scary feeling,” she said. “I’ll be up until midnight watching TV, trying to figure this all out.”
Dennis Demay, who works in the Department of Labor, is one of about 14,000 department employees who will be furloughed come Tuesday morning if the government shuts down. “I’ve got bills like everybody else,” he told ThinkProgress. On top of potentially missing out on paychecks for as long as the government is closed, he and his coworkers haven’t gotten a pay raise in three years while insurance premiums and other costs have risen. “I’m taking home less money than I did in 2011,” he said. “I think a pretty accurate description of how I feel is pissed off,” he added.
Beyond financial concerns, the uncertainty of just not knowing whether they’ll be showing up for work on Tuesday has been wearing on his team. “You had worry, you had anxiety,” he said. “I think today it’s angry. People are tired of it.” The emotional distress is impacting people’s productivity at work and the possibility of a shutdown is even blocking some work from getting done. Some coworkers have hesitated to set up appointments for this week in case no one comes to work. Demay himself spent all of Monday dealing with the shutdown and spent most of his time the past couple of weeks on it too.
And while he and his coworkers who face the possibility of being furloughed have been deemed nonessential, there are dangers to having them off of the job. “Working for the Department of Labor, we protect people,” he says. “For some of us, that’s the biggest casualty here, knowing somewhere along the line someone may die because an OSHA inspector wasn’t there to do a safety inspection.”
“People are honked off,” he says. “At some point, if we acted like [Congress], we’d be on the street.”
Even those few federal employees who are deemed essential and would have to show up to work anyway are frustrating with what’s happening in Congress. Michael Arendt, an employee of the Army Corps of Engineers who operates a dam at a navigational site, won’t be paid for his work until the government is funded again. He has also gone three years without a raise and “it’s a little mental anguish” to be uncertain whether and when he will be paid. “It’s like walking into the doctor’s office and the doctor says, ‘I found something, but we have to get more conclusive tests,’” he says. “You’re in a daze for a while. That’s exactly how I feel, waiting for the final results of what happens.” While something like this has happened before, every time he and his coworkers aren’t sure how long it will last. “It could be 24 hours, it could be 22 days like in 1995, it could be longer,” he said.
He is certain that he and his coworkers will make it through and will keep things running safely during any shutdown. But he said he hopes that Congress realizes the sacrifice they’ll be making. “Stop treating us like we don’t exist,” he said.
John Garrity, a civilian engineer with the Navy and an official with the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers Local 3, will also avoid a furlough. Thanks to funds set aside for their work servicing, certifying, and doing research and development testing on Navy equipment, he and his fellow civilian technicians at the Naval Facilities Engineering Command will continue to be paid for some indefinite period following a shutdown. Still, they don’t know how long that money will last, and they’re nervous. “There’s not a lot they can do. You ride it out, hope for the best,” said Garrity, who has three school-age children. “If I could figure out Congress I could make a lot of money.”
Shutdown chatter comes after years of pay freezes and sequestration cuts for Garrity and his colleagues. “They’re chasing people out of the federal government,” he said. “We had nine engineers that left this year, brand new engineers that left. That was from sequestration.” They also haven’t had a raise for about four years. “The work DoD civilians do is important work and it takes an educated workforce,” he said. “But if you got a young kid coming in with an engineering degree and college debt, and every year there’s a shutdown and furloughs and you can’t get a pay raise, these guys can shop around and find something else. They’re pretty marketable.”