Federal employees brace for another shutdown, just in case
By TODD C. FRANKEL, KIMBERLY KINDY AND LISA REIN | The Washington Post | Published: February 12, 2019
Refill prescriptions. Keep working that side hustle. Make sure at least the rent is paid up. Downsize those date nights to evenings by the TV. And change the computer password before Friday.
Federal workers are preparing for another government shutdown at week's end with the bitter benefit of lessons learned from the last shutdown — a historic 35-day furlough that ended just three weeks ago.
"The whole thing is insulting," said Anel Flores, who works at NASA's Goddard facility in Greenbelt, Maryland, where he dreams up new planetary space missions.
Open, closed. Open . . . closed? The work lives of 800,000 federal employees continued to hang in doubt Tuesday as political leaders tried to hammer out a budget deal to keep the government going. If they don't, nine Cabinet agencies and dozens of smaller ones will close at midnight Friday — again.
Few were finding comfort in assurances that a deal would be reached. The pain of the last shutdown still stings. Little is back to normal. Some workers still have not been fully repaid. Others are still paying back the unemployment benefits and short-term loans taken during the last furlough. Backed-up workloads are still being cleared. Anxiety is rising, despite talk of a deal.
"It's the whole not knowing what's going to happen," said Flores, 59.
So some have continued to hedge their bets.
Roger Ware still works 24 hours a week in construction on top of his full-time job at Hazelton Federal Correctional Complex in West Virginia.
"I'm not going to quit until I see what happens on Friday," said Ware, 42, who is also vice president of his local union.
Joe Rojas, a 52-year-old correctional officer at Coleman Penitentiary in Central Florida, still has Lyft and Uber decals in his car's windshield. He started picking up fares during the last shutdown, and he's ready to go again.
Angie Acklin, a correctional officer and local union representative at the prison in Aliceville, Alabama, said she recently applied for a cashier's job at Walgreens.
"I need the peace of mind," said Acklin, 41. "I need to know I have money to take care of myself."
Furloughed workers had to float the 35-day shutdown without paychecks. They were supposed to get paid once the government reopened. But lingering payroll problems have led to some getting shorted.
Flores said he was still owed several hundred dollars.
In Kansas City, Shannon Ellis said some IRS workers had suffered incorrect deductions and leave balances on their paychecks since the shutdown.
Now, these workers are looking at going without a paycheck — or paychecks — again.
Many IRS workers were squirreling away overtime pay during the busy tax season in preparation for another shutdown, said Ellis, president of National Treasury Employees Union Chapter 66.
Everyone is still scarred by the last shutdown - and the uncertainty of not knowing how the next one could unfold.
"You know what to expect, but you don't," said Ellis, 52.
The fear can be motivating. Laura Barmby, an international trade specialist at the Commerce Department in Washington, has been working to clear her desk of important matters before Friday. She was furloughed during the last shutdown and missed a deadline to vet applicants for a presidential awards program for exporters.
"I've never been this far ahead of schedule," said Barmby, 51.
During the last shutdown, dozens of federal workers and contractors launched crowdfunding campaigns on sites such as GoFundMe to make up for what the government wasn't paying. And many of those campaigns are still open - donations still trickling in — even as the government looks to close again, one need bleeding into another.
Some workers haven't shrugged off their shutdown caution.
Connie Scarrow is still avoiding spending money on weekend trips to visit relatives who live about two hours from her home in Norton, Kansas. That means she hasn't seen her dad, who will turn 92 later this month, since Thanksgiving.
Scarrow, a federal meat inspector in Beaver City, Nebraska, also spends more time hunting for the best deals when she's shopping.
"I was laughing at myself the other day when I was shopping for toilet paper," she said. "I had a calculator out to figure out what the best deal was."
For meat inspector Eric Rothell, curbing costs has meant date night with his wife has gone from a trip to a movie theater or comedy club to an evening in front of the TV. He's had to turn down many of his teenage son's requests for money. His son is no longer hanging out with friends at restaurants. He can't be on the trap shooting team he wanted to join.
"This whole thing shouldn't affect kids, but it does," said Rothell, 54.
Flores, who works at NASA, said the threat of another shutdown — so soon after the last one — is frustrating.
"This isn't any way to run a space agency," he said. "This isn't any way to run the federal government."