In his 30 years at the Department of Commerce, Doug has been through a lot of government shutdowns. None of them, however, have affected him like this. He is used to adjusting to the occasional furlough, but as the longest shutdown in American history breezes through its fourth week, he has “personally shut down.”
He has been cutting back—shopping only for “necessities;” keeping the house cold; rationing gas; “doing everything my grandma complained about from the Great Depression”—but with a family and elderly parents to care for, it has not been enough. So he filed for unemployment and has been applying for other jobs, two furlough firsts for him. Money has not started coming in from unemployment yet, though, and while he has only been looking for short-term work, so far he has yet to get a reply. “I hope for the best—to return to the position I had before the furlough—but it’s about to the point to prepare for the worst and consider anything I need to do,” he says.
The District of Columbia is home to roughly 100,000 federal employees at agencies affected by the shutdown, as well as an untold number of contractors. Many of the federal workers are furloughed, and while they are virtually guaranteed to eventually receive back pay, when that will happen is anyone’s guess. Others are being made to work without pay, and those contractors who have stopped receiving paychecks are unlikely to receive back pay at all. Each passing week, the toll on workers across the DMV increases, and for many, the struggle is psychological as much as it is financial.
One early childhood educator working with the Smithsonian tells City Paper that she has not had a full night’s sleep since the shutdown started. While she has dealt with general anxiety since she was a child, she has been able to manage it well in recent years. But not knowing when she will be back at work or what the future holds has brought sleepless nights and panic attacks “back into [her] daily life.” “I think what hurts the most is the fact that I really consider my work a calling… To see it all held hostage as part of a political stunt makes me angry and scared,” she says.
She is far from the only person struggling to watch her work go undone. Jane, a longtime National Park Service employee (she requested a pseudonym to protect her identity), has not had trouble living off her savings so far. But all the same, she says, “I can barely get out of bed. I’m lucky if I’m dressed before 2.”
She spends a lot of time hanging out in NPS Facebook groups, where Parks employees trade financial tips and monitor the damage being done to the parks during the shutdown. While she has plenty to worry about, especially if the shutdown lasts much longer, this harm to the parks might be what is making her the most anxious. National parks have remained open during the shutdown, but without the staff there, visitors are cutting down trees, and trash and human waste are accumulating. “The poop and the garbage are just monumental.” She has trouble shaking it. “There’s a reason we’re there. It’s as if we don’t matter,” she says. “There’s rage, there’s exhaustion, there’s frustration—then it’s back to rage again.”
Making ends meet right now is also at the top of many peoples’ minds. Food pantries in the area report a flood of requests as workers’ savings start to run thin. Florence, who works for the Department of Homeland Security, tells City Paper that she has been among those going to food pantries for the first time ever, getting help from the Capital Area Food Bank. In January, she managed to pay some of her bills and keep food on the table, but she could not make her mortgage payment. She knows she will get her electricity bill soon, and she does not have the money in her budget to pay it. But what scares her most is “the uncertainty of what will happen if it takes too long for us to go back to work and I don’t have any more food.” Some days she feels normal, but other days, she just cries.
All this chaos is making some federal workers ask if they should even return to government jobs after this is all over. Caitlin, who has left D.C. to be with family until the shutdown is over, explains that she joined the Food and Drug Administration thinking that “government jobs were some of the most stable jobs available.” As much as she enjoys her work, the shutdown has made her consider moving to the private food industry.
What Jane spent much of her career doing is so specialized to the National Park Service that she says finding work elsewhere would be hard. Beyond that, she worries about how an employee exodus would affect the agency and who would be around to take over her responsibilities if she walked out. Still, she is getting fed up. “I’m going to go back just to get my back pay, but then I’m considering [leaving] because this is untenable. I’m too old for this crap.”
The whole shutdown feels pointless to her, and she is worried that President Trump and Congress will not cave any time soon. “Well, where does that leave us?” she asks. “If you’ve already decided to give us back pay, then let us go back to fucking work.”