Security officer Jarvis Landlum holds a sign informing
people on the government shutdown of Alcatraz Island, a
tourist attraction operated by the National Park Service,
in San Francisco. REUTERS/Stephen Lam
The US 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 as she
joined many others going to work just to cancel meetings,
lock up files and set out-of-office messages on email and
The US 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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
"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."