Patience Wearing Thin Among Those Most Affected by Shutdown
- By Staff; National Journal; October 11, 2013
Carl Triplett, an IT management analyst at the U.S. Department of Transportation, has the dubious distinction of being doubly impacted by the government shutdown. Not only has Triplett been furloughed, but Carolina Q, the food-truck business he co-owns with his partner, has lost some of its customer base.
For Triplett, the primary problem is the uncertainty of when the shutdown will end. “Going without one or two paychecks might not be that bad,” he says, “but when you have no end in sight,” it is cause for concern. Even the promise of at least partial back pay is cold comfort, as there is no set return date, and thus employees have no idea when to expect payment.
“I can’t write an IOU to my car payments, apartment, and credit cards,” he noted.
The barbecue business has suffered as furloughed workers remain home, or at least reduce their spending. Triplett had already noticed a downturn during September—one he attributed to the end of summer vacations and the costs associated with children’s return to school—but the effect of the shutdown has been immediate and severe.
On Oct. 2, the first full day of the shutdown, Triplett parked the food truck in Washington’s Franklin Square, where there were more competitors and fewer customers than they had at the same location in August.
The dearth of federal employees has necessitated some flexibility—this week, Carolina Q made its first stop at the Southwest Waterfront, near the offices of the District of Columbia Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs. The district employees are still on the job, and the waterfront is a “pretty vibrant area.” Still, he says, “it makes you kind of worried about what the winter would be like, or what the rest of these days are going to be like.”
Triplett is a 26-year veteran of DOT, having spent 22 years with the Federal Highway Administration and the past four years in the office of the secretary. He helps oversee the IT budgets of the department’s constituent agencies, but his entire team has been furloughed. Triplett says that while he understands that some congressional Republicans “really do not like government,” the shutdown “seems reckless as a way to test your theory that large government doesn’t do anything.” Were he able to address lawmakers on the issue, he would remind them, “you’re actually affecting millions of lives and you’re putting us in the middle of it.”
For Kirsten Burgard, one of the strangest parts of the shutdown has been riding nearly empty Metro cars to work each day.
Burgard, 43, works in the IT office at the Department of Veterans Affairs. Her office operated through the first week of the shutdown on carryover funding; this week the funds dried up and she was sent home.
“Last week wasn’t too bad,” Burgard said. “But you noticed strange things in the building like our elevators malfunctioned and apparently building services staff is nonessential so at one point last week there were two elevators that just weren’t working and it stayed like that for a while. Eventually they got them fixed, I don’t know how. I’ve never had that kind of experience at Veterans Affairs before. Normally everything runs smoothly.”
Burgard had been working as a Web developer but was slated to start a new position Monday as a management analyst in the same office. For now, that’s been put on hold. Burgard has some money saved but is also taking on a few freelance Web-development gigs to hold her over.
“Mostly I’m just tired of feeling like a hostage or a ping-pong ball,” she said. “This isn’t the first time we’ve had to deal with this in government. In 2011 we were close to shutting down too and I didn’t think it was going to happen, but this time around I just felt like it was going to happen.”
On the Cusp
Twenty-seven tribal nations are drinking water that is not being monitored by the Environmental Protection Agency due to the shutdown.
Meetings to determine whether there would be environmental cleanups of abandoned hazardous waste sites were canceled.
Dave Christenson, 51, an environmental protection specialist at EPA’s regional office in Denver, was one of the workers furloughed because of the budget standoff.
“I have, as of this year, 26 years of service with the EPA,” Christenson said. “But I’m right on the cusp of starting to look.”
A new job isn’t what Christenson wants, but after he was sent home for seven days earlier this year due to sequestration—and with the prospect of more cuts next year—Christenson might have to leave.
“I didn’t think the government would actually shut down,” he said. “I’m anxious about my economic future. It’s a disappointing future as a federal-government employee.”
Christenson is an officer in his local for the American Federation of Government Employees. He said he’s optimistic about the Senate passing a bill that would grant pay retroactively to furloughed federal workers, which garnered support in the House last week.
“Being in the union, we have people requesting financial assistance,” Christenson said. “I know employees who are hurting. I hold Congress accountable.”
If sequestration continues, Christenson said, he expects EPA will do more furloughs, or even layoffs, which will affect younger, newer employees first.
“Young people are starting to leave, it’s true,” Christenson said. “And people are retiring sooner. We’re already having a brain drain. We’re not filling most of the positions as they’re vacated.”
Elliot Volkman is worried the shutdown will cause serious delays in his work.
“Any work that we were doing just came to a complete halt so even if we go back tomorrow there will be a big lag. We can’t just pick up where we left off because it will take time for people to get back into the swing of things and get going again.”
Volkman, 28, is a government contractor with Tantus Technologies, an information-technology and management-consulting firm. Before the shutdown, he was working in marketing and communications at the Federal Aviation Administration.
In addition to concerns about work, Volkman says the shutdown came at a bad time for him for other reasons as well. “For me personally it’s kind of a rough time for this to happen. My apartment recently caught on fire and I lost of a lot of stuff and then had to move again so it’s not great timing. I do have money saved so I know I’ll be OK for a few months and I assume the shutdown won’t last too much longer, but it’s certainly not ideal.”
What’s Volkman doing in the meantime? Working on a few small projects, he says, “just trying to keep busy.”
Frank Folb runs a retail tackle shop in Avon, N.C., that is surrounded by federal land on the usually well-traveled Outer Banks. The ocean beaches just east of his business are closed down and most points of access are supposed to be off-limits.
But that’s not stopping too many fishermen and beachgoers, he said. The National Park Service’s limited staff simply lacks the resources to keep the area closed to the public. “There’s no way that three rangers could [enforce] all that,” he said.
His business remains open, and he’s found Mother Nature to be a more formidable opponent than Uncle Sam. “This weather’s affecting me 10 times worse than the shutdown was,” he said.
Still, Folb estimates his business is down 17 percent since the shutdown, though a decent portion of that is attributable to the rain hitting the area.
The owner of Frank and Fran’s Fisherman Friend has been in business for 25 years, and he says the government has tried to make this shutdown more painful than the last. Unlike the 1995 shutdown, the area’s federally owned piers, marinas, and concessions have closed along with the beaches.
Some area charter boat owners had to remove their vessels from a government-run marina and are paying slip fees at private docks just to stay operational. And some businesses that have the misfortune of being on federal land have been forced to close as well.
Perhaps the biggest annoyance is the perception that the shutdown has taken his shop down with it. “We get the calls every day—’When are they going to reopen it?’ ” Folb said. “It just drives us nuts.”
Rosa Van Wie, who is supposed to start her new job at a Maine preschool for kids with autism, couldn’t get her background check approved due to the federal shutdown.
The preschool needs staff, and Van Wie needs the money. When Rep. Chellie Pingree read her story in National Journal Daily on Wednesday, aides for the Maine Democrat reached out on Facebook to see what they could do to help, Van Wie said in an email.
“I was very grateful they took the time to reach out to me,” Van Wie said.