What the Government Shutdown Means to Real D.C. Families


It’s shutdown time. I’ve accepted it.

I live in Arlington, Virginia, just outside of our nation’s capital and mere miles from where Congress is teetering on the edge of a federal government shutdown. For most of you living outside of D.C., a short shutdown will not change much — you may not feel the shutdown’s impact unless it lasts for more than a week. Your mail will still be delivered and your trash picked up, passports will be issued until they run out of money, and if you’re currently camping in a federal park, you don’t have to leave for two more days. But for those of us who live in Washington, D.C. — particularly those who work for a federal agency — we will bear the full brunt of what happens next.  

The question facing many D.C. employees is whether they are "essential" or "nonessential" (more recently re-termed "non-excepted").  Being deemed "essential" means that the employee is required to report to work even if Congress fails to act, and whether or not they get paid. These are either employees in an agency that has mandatory funding or employees working national security positions.

A non-excepted federal employee, or everyone else, is required to stay at home and is furloughed. The lapse in appropriations caused by a shutdown means that upon the expiration of the continuing resolution, activities and personnel funded by annual appropriations have no funds to continue to operate — thus, they cease until appropriations are reauthorized. The exact percentages vary by agency. 87% of the Department of Commerce's 46,420 employees will be sent home; 90.7% of IRS employees will not be able to report to work and are not allowed to conduct any business during the agency shutdown — under penalty of being fired.

In all, roughly 40-47% of all federal employees will be furloughed under a shutdown and paid "eventually" if they end up being essential and paid retroactively. Those who are furloughed would be paid only if Congress decides to pass a law authorizing their pay, which roughly equates to "no promises."

For those of you who would otherwise call the furlough a vacation or dismiss the need for federal agency employees: it’s not that simple. Federal employees are Americans with families, rents or mortgages, expenses and bills — just like you. And when the government shuts down, that’s someone’s paycheck. That is someone’s disposable income not trickling down into the economy and purchasing goods.

Imagine having your paycheck left to the whims of Congress.

A couple I am close to is facing financial burdens for just this reason. The wife is an essential employee for the Department of Treasury and the husband a non-excepted employee for the Department of Energy, and the couple is juggling the care of their eight-month-old son. The mother said to me, "It’s sad that we have to budget plan a government shutdown into our personal finances because Congress refuses to govern."

Their family budget is already tight after maternity leave. In addition to their worries, the daycare center for their son has to shut down because it’s within a federal building, and the staff is scrambling to find alternative care for the children of federal employees left in a lurch.

Another young couple I know is facing similar financial strife, not knowing how their work with a federal government contractor will be impacted when the agency they work with is closed. The husband has been told that he will be deemed essential for his work, but no one is clear when a paycheck will come through, though retroactive pay for essential employees occurs, at some point, once Congress decides to fund the government again. For non-excepted employees, there’s a greater chance that, for the first time, the federal government could refuse to reimburse employees for unpaid leave after a lapse in appropriations.

Remember that those non-excepted employees facing a shutdown furlough may be simultaneously coping with an administrative furlough as a result of sequestration. Another friend of mine is a budget analyst for the Department of Housing and Urban Development. She lost an entire week’s worth of pay under sequestration and adjusted her personal budget downward for her new salary expectations. She is now facing additional days of unpaid leave for however long the shutdown lasts. For this particular employee, the sequester furlough depleted funds she otherwise was saving by 25%, and the sequester has left her with little cushioning to handle additional days without pay.

Meanwhile, the government of the District of Columbia is operated by federal appropriations and does not have control over its own finances. In the shutdowns of the 1990s, trash collection was halted and city departments closed. In fact, the District of Columbia is the only jurisdiction barred from spending funds during a federal government shutdown with the exception of police, firefighters, and EMS units. Last week, Mayor Vincent Gray deemed all city employees essential, which would keep city services operational, but the District’s own attorney general thinks such a move is illegal. I’ll tell you one thing — my D.C. neighbors do not want to deal with uncollected trash for weeks.

The next time you hear that a federal government shutdown means nothing, remember these stories. Politicians love to throw out tales of singular interactions that have guided their outlook on countless issues, but the stories I’ve shared are not isolated. I am quite lucky that my job is not tied to the federal government and Virginia will still be operating trash collection. What I personally experience, beyond an intense frustration with the entire situation, will be limited to an easier commute with less traffic congestion. But this is serious. These are lives. These are workers and friends.

And even with this government shutdown, the continuing resolution being debated only gets us to November 15 (Senate effort) or December 15 (House effort). So for all the struggles I have outlined from on the ground here in D.C., it's worth remembering that we’ll probably be here again in just a few weeks.

And that’s shameful.