U.S. government workers feel sting of being 'non-essential'

WASHINGTON Tue Oct 1, 2013 4:28pm EDT

1 of 2. A worker arrives at the Department of Homeland Security on Tuesday morning after the federal government was shutdown when the House and Senate failed to pass a budget in Washington October 1, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/James Lawler Duggan

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. government shutdown has divided hundreds of thousands of workers into those classified as critically important and others seen as less so, bruising egos and leaving many grappling with the financial toll of unpaid leave.

"I'm heading in to be non-essential," said one Environmental Protection Agency worker on the metro transit system on Tuesday as she joined many others going to work just to cancel meetings, lock up files and set out-of-office messages on email and voice mail.

The U.S. government shut down for the first time in 17 years after Congress failed to agree on a budget, splitting federal workers into a painful pecking order of "essential" employees who have to keep working and "non-essential" workers sent on unpaid leave.

Some 800,000 to 1 million federal employees nationally are expected to be furloughed because of the shutdown. They will be required to suspend work-related activity, including checking email or using work-issued phones and laptops, until lawmakers break the political stalemate and pass a spending bill.

It's unclear how long that will last and how many employees will receive retroactive paychecks.

"All of us were told not to report to work. We can't even report to campus to water our plants," said Suzanne Kerba, a health communications specialist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

Pinning the "preventable" shutdown on Republicans, President Barack Obama wrote to federal workers on Tuesday, saying they do valued work "in a political climate that, too often in recent years, has treated you like a punching bag.

Obama and his fellow Democrats have rejected Republican efforts to use the funding impasse as leverage to change the president's signature healthcare law, known as "Obamacare."

Federal employees whose work has been labeled not essential have been hit hard as political dysfunction repeatedly stifles negotiations between Democrats, who control the Senate, and Republicans, who lead the House of Representatives.

Many offices have had long-standing freezes on hiring new staff and have not been able to offer raises to keep up with the growing cost of living for several years, workers say.

For many employees, Tuesday's furloughs are the second time this year they have been sent home without pay. The first furloughs resulted from across-the-board government spending cuts known as the "sequester," also prompted by disagreements in Congress over federal spending.

"As a government employee, I feel like a scapegoat and a pawn in a political game. And I sort of feel like government workers are chopped liver," said Ken Carroll, director of the Fair Housing Assistance Program Division at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, who was furloughed for several days earlier this year.

'NON-EXCEPTED' = NOT EXCEPTIONAL?

The divide of employees along "essential" and "non-essential" lines added to the hurt even as the officials started to use the gentler terms of "excepted" and "non-excepted."

"I recognize how hurtful the label 'non-excepted' can be - all those who work at NIH are exceptional!" National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins wrote in a note to his workers on Tuesday, seeking to boost morale as he confirmed that the majority of NIH workers would be furloughed.

Most government agencies similarly sent the majority of their workers home on Tuesday, including the Environmental Protection Agency, the Internal Revenue Service and NASA.

Federal employees described confusing and sometimes messy rollouts of notifications over the past few days of who was and was not essential - with some employees trying to argue their work's importance was underestimated.

Washington kicked into gear to support the troubled workers as "shutdown hoedown" parties, and all-day happy hour offers sprang up around the city.

Yoga, pilates and martial arts studios offered free or discounted classes, while shops and restaurants gave out free food and snacks. One suburban restaurant even said it would charge members of Congress double for coffee, while offering free cups to government workers.

FEELING THE FINANCIAL PAIN

While some furloughed workers said they were going to treat the time off as a vacation - planning to hit the gym, catch up on house chores or devote more time to hobbies - financial concerns weighed on many.

"The furlough will hit home," said Michael Bloom, an adviser on sustainability and green buildings at the General Services Administration in Chicago, who is the main earner in a family of four. "We are OK if the shutdown lasts a couple days, but if it lasts two weeks, that missing paycheck is a mortgage payment."

Maria Njoku, a furloughed administrative worker at the Pentagon, said she was still recovering financially from her earlier unpaid leave this year and was planning to reschedule her upcoming mobile phone and cable TV payments.

Labor unions that represent federal employees excoriated lawmakers on Tuesday for allowing the shutdown to occur, urging Congress to approve legislation to ensure that furloughed federal workers are eventually compensated.

Non-essential workers received back pay after the 1995-1996 government shutdown.

"We appeal to House leadership to put an end to this dangerous circus," Laborers International Union of North America President Terry O'Sullivan said. "And Congress must then make the federal employees who have been victims whole by providing full back pay."

(Additional reporting by Diane Bartz, Patrick Temple-West, Deborah Charles, Margaret Chadbourn, Amanda Becker and Phil Stewart in Washington; Verna Gates in Birmingham, Alabama; Jane Sutton in Miami; Brendan O'Brien in Chicago; Writing by Alina Selyukh; Editing by Karey Van Hall and Peter Cooney)

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Comments (9)
COindependent wrote:
As usual, the ideology on both side trickles down to hit the worker. Congress and the President will get paid no matter how long the impasse lasts. They and their families are good, that’s all that matters.

Even if federal workers are reimbursed for the furlough, they still take a financial penalty. Thanks Mr. President who repeatedly opens a conversation with the words “non-negotiable”. Thanks to the corrupted Harry Reid for not even allowing the Senate to vote on a compromise that would have kept government working.

Postpone Obamacare for businesses. Exempt the preferred corporations that contribute to OFA. Issue executive orders to meet the needs of the political class in violation of the laws and Constitution you promised to uphold. Screw the working individual who covers the national rent–all the while asking them for your vote.

There is nothing free, funded or or subsidized by the government without the working guy funding it. The middle class be damned–all is good inside the Beltway for the political aristocracy.

And get this…the consummate ideologue (POTUS) now condemns others for being ideological. Really…

Oct 01, 2013 2:16pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
Speaker2 wrote:
COindependent The budget should had nothing to do with ACA, nothing. ACA is the law, plain and simple and if a small group of house members don’t like it, then work within the system to make changes.

Why should the Senate or the President compromise? ACA is the law. On the Business rule change, it affects less than 2% of big businesses. So its hardly a big change. Small biz was put off for 30-days due to a software glitch.

Obama is not change the law, but the executive branch can change rules within the law. Big difference there, since it would be illegal for his to change a law.

Oct 01, 2013 2:26pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
COindependent wrote:
Speaker2: if “it’s the law” as you state, then how can the POTUS exempt ANY companies, and delay implementation? You cannot demand compliance while at the same time exempting others. So the POTUS can modify this, and any, law at will–just like he has done with the immigration enforcement–to meet his personal and political needs? I did not realize the country elected a king.

ACA has everything to do with budget–it’s a federally designed and funded program (HHS), and redirects dollars from Medicare to fund it. It also expands Medicaid. Explain how you add 30-45 million persons, many of them “subsidized” and not have it impact federal spending (the budget).

Since we operate the government at a deficit, then it has everything to do with the budget, debt and our long term finances.

Semantics, while juggling the numbers and rules for political expediency, does not change the reality.

Oct 01, 2013 2:42pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
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