After sixteen days, Congress finally voted last Wednesday night to reopen the government. Over the course of these last few weeks, you may have heard a lot about federal workers—and a lot of it probably wasn’t good. As the whole thing fades into history, I’m hearing a lot of snarky comments about how public employees had a two-week paid vacation.
Well, I’m one of the several hundred thousand workers who was furloughed on October first. [I should add that I’m writing only from my own perspective, on my own time; in no way am I doing so in my work capacity.] Frankly, I’ve been luckier than many others impacted by the shutdown. I’m not writing to offer a plea for sympathy or a tale of woe. But I can still say without hesitation that it’s been far from a paid vacation.
So how did this all happen? As you may know (or may have pieced together based on bits of actual information in the news), the government funds most of its functions annually, and the fiscal year starts on October 1st. This year, the GOP refused to pass budgets that didn’t have major cuts to the Affordable Care Act of 2010 (aka Obamacare). So with no budget, there was no money to fund our jobs, leading to what my furlough notice called a “non-duty, non-pay status.”
In the days before that deadline arrived, it seemed there was a good chance of a shutdown. The end of September is always a busy time, as we wrap up outstanding business from the previous fiscal year. But this year, there were new elements, like formal letters to send to grantees alerting them of what would happen in case of a shutdown. Deadlines slated for early October moved up, as we tried to do all that before the government closed. I worked quite a bit over the weekend, and I was editing a report up until midnight on September 30th so that I could submit my comments before being furloughed.
Why the desperate rush to get as much done as possible? Because once the furlough began, working became ILLEGAL. As in, with potential criminal penalties.
The law in question is called the Antideficiency Act. It ties back to a basic principle in the Constitution, that only Congress can spend money. If you work without an appropriation, you’re incurring costs to the government without Congress’ go-ahead. Even if you say that you’re doing it as a volunteer, you’re “supplementing an appropriation” and circumventing the will of Congress. And that’s not allowed.
This is more than an obscure-but-interesting point of law. Some people asked why lazy federal workers weren’t working from home, or volunteering to cut the grass at the monuments, or otherwise chipping in. The answer was not simply that we weren’t being paid (though that would be a perfectly legit reason too), but that we weren’t allowed to. In my office, we were warned not even to check our work e-mail, as that would be in breach of the law.1
That’s the non-duty part of the furlough. There was also the non-pay aspect. It was a big relief to see that the deal ultimately included retroactive pay for the days when we were furloughed. But I want to be clear—that was NOT a given throughout this. The House passed a bill mandating back pay during the first week of the shutdown, but it came during a period when they were passing multiple bills that they knew the Senate wouldn’t pass. Predictably, the Senate did not vote on this one—and comments from both Democratic and Republican leadership raised questions about whether it was going anywhere.
Factor those mixed political signals into the general animus toward public employees (think of the phrase “Washington bureaucrats” and tell me if a positive image comes to mind), and you can see how things could get stressful. It was easy to imagine that we might not be paid for this period when we were barred from working. Throughout the 16-day furlough, we lived with a profound uncertainty about whether our budgets would be blown wide open.
Whatever ultimately happened with retroactive pay, we knew that it wouldn’t come until after the government reopened. The shutdown began on the day rent was due, other bills following in quick succession. Fortunately, I have some cushion here. I make enough to have some savings, I live with a partner who has a non-federal salary, and I don’t have kids at this point. But those statements don’t apply to many federal employees, many of whom have already seen their pay cut by other furlough days under sequestration (a topic for another essay). There are many stories of public employees who missed payments, faced late fees, turned to food banks, and so on—and felt the stress that can accompany those.
Beyond the economic aspect, there was a trying level of uncertainty to these last few weeks. When your daily routine suddenly disappears, it’s disruptive. But when I tried to make plans, it was never clear what to expect. Should I make that doctor’s appointment next week, or would that turn out to be my first day back at work? The last five days or put me particularly on edge, as I tried to keep up with repeated breathless reports of deals that were said to be right around the corner (most of which, of course, fell apart or were never close). Even late Wednesday night, I wasn’t sure if I was to report to work Thursday. If that’s how you define a vacation, you may be doing it wrong.
It should go without saying that this shutdown hasn’t only hit furloughed workers. I’ve focused here on my own experience over these few weeks. But I’d also urge folks to read the stories of the people who make use of government programs large and small, well-known and obscure, who’ve suffered over the last two weeks. The same goes for those who work in the food courts and similar venues serving federal facilities who are not feds themselves, and who can expect no compensation for the hours they lost over the past two weeks.
So that’s a snapshot of my furlough. It was most certainly not a paid vacation, nor a manifestation of laziness. It was a manufactured crisis, and we found ourselves in the middle of it. And now we’re dealing with the backlogs and missed deadlines it created as we go back to work.
Photo by NPCA Photos released under a Creative Commons No Derivatives license.