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Virginia furloughed workers get creative to pass time

Dennis Ceasar was feeling antsy.

He had spent the first day of his unexpected furlough catching up on projects around the house and mindlessly surfing the Internet. Then came day two, and there was still no end in sight.

"I've got to get out of here," Ceasar told his wife when she called home from work to check on him Wednesday. "I'm going to lose my mind."

A day later, the civilian Navy medical worker laced up a pair of old work boots and joined a commercial landscaping crew. For $10 an hour, the man who spends most workdays filing and sorting medical records was instead raking leaves, pulling weeds and trimming hedges.

The former Navy corpsman is among thousands of federal workers in Hampton Roads wondering how to make ends meet - or pass the time - as Congress remains deadlocked in a dispute that has shuttered much of the federal government.

"I've got three kids," Ceasar said while taking a short break. "I can't sit around hoping I might get paid."

The impact of the partial government shutdown is particularly acute in military-heavy Hampton Roads, home to 35,000 civilian defense workers and thousands of other federal employees. Many were sent home without pay Tuesday after lawmakers failed to reach a compromise to fund the government.

Even those who are considered essential and have continued working won't be compensated for those hours until Congress reaches a deal. Lawmakers are considering a measure that would retroactively pay furloughed workers once funding is restored, but there's no guarantee.

Businesses have tried to soften the blow for federal employees - with bars offering happy-hour deals, yoga instructors giving free classes, attractions waiving entrance fees.

Courtney Baker-Williams took her frustrations to the gym.

"When I finally go back to work, I'm going to be a lot smaller," said Baker-Williams, a Coast Guard contract specialist who's been working out every day. "I figure, 'I'm not working; I might as well get in shape.' "

Craigslist, the popular classified-ads website, has become an online gathering place for out-of-work federal employees.

A defense worker in Virginia Beach was selling a motorized scooter and other items to help cover his bills. Another furloughed worker in Portsmouth was advertising a washer-and-dryer set and said he was moving in with family to save money.

Glenn Woodell posted an advertisement offering to repair damaged wires and cables for $10 apiece. Before getting the furlough notice, Woodell, a 52-year-old research technician at NASA Langley, had been working on a project studying how advanced laser technology can be used to measure pollutants in the atmosphere.

"I'm a little concerned for myself, but I have enough in savings to get by for a little while," said Woodell, who lives in Newport News. "My real concern is the people you don't hear about - the ones living paycheck-to-paycheck."

William Follmer was in a new-employee training session at Norfolk Naval Shipyard in Portsmouth when he was handed his furlough notice.

The former government contractor took a machinist job at the shipyard a few weeks ago, believing it would offer more stability for his family.

"We won't make it long without money coming in," said Follmer, who posted an ad Wednesday offering to work on cars or do odd jobs for cash to support his wife and baby. "I'll do anything that will help me pay the bills."

As of Friday afternoon, he hadn't gotten any nibbles.

Joe O'Connell, a NASA engineer, was on paid leave attending his father's out-of-state memorial service when he was notified that he was being placed on unpaid furlough. He said he felt like federal workers had been "slapped in the face."

"The last thing I want to see next year is a politician come to NASA Langley and say how proud they are of the work we're doing," O'Connell said.

"We're proud, too," he said. "Now figure this thing out and let us go back to work."

Mike Hixenbaugh, 757-446-2949,mike.hixenbaugh@pilotonline.com

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