Federal Workers Prepare For Possible Shutdown

If congressional leaders and the White House can't reach an agreement to avert a government shutdown, those who will feel its effects most acutely are the estimated 800,000 federal employees who will be furloughed as of Monday. Many still don't know who they are yet, as government agencies are only now beginning to finalize lists of essential and exempt workers.

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And if there's no agreement to avert a government shutdown, those who will feel its effects most acutely are the estimated 800,000 federal employees who will be furloughed.

Government agencies are only now beginning to finalize lists of workers to be sent home when current funding runs out. NPR's Brian Naylor spoke with a handful of federal employees in Washington today to hear what they make of all of this.

BRIAN NAYLOR: L'Enfant Plaza is a small underground mall named after the French architect who laid out the capital's street grid. Rising nearby are the headquarters of several federal agencies. So it's a good bet that most of those folks with ID tags heading towards the espresso shop and the deli are federal workers, like for instance Carol Davison, who works for the Commerce Department and is still waiting to hear what her future holds.

CAROL DAVISON: They give us as much guidance as they possibly can. In fact, just the other day, Secretary Locke sent something out about how he appreciates our service and things of that nature.

NAYLOR: Do you feel appreciated at a time like this?

DAVISON: This is politics. This isn't real life. This is whomever flexing their muscles, showing how powerful they are. This has nothing to do with my government service.

NAYLOR: Mark Burton, a Department of Energy employee, expects he will be working in a shutdown. He uses a different metaphor to describe the debate that will affect his future.

MARK BURTON: I don't know, you know, it's like two opposing forces, almost like two dogs fighting over one bone, and you're trying to see who is going to win, you know? Compromise just doesn't seem to be on the agenda.

NAYLOR: Do you feel like you're the bone in that fight?

BURTON: Oh, I'm pretty sure every federal employee is the bone in the fight right now.

NAYLOR: An increasing number of those who do the government's work are contract employees, and many of them will also be affected if there is a shutdown, like FAA contractor Tom Cronin.

TOM CRONIN: I don't have leave time or anything like that. So I'll go out without a paycheck. You think that they - they, the politicians - have our best interests in their minds. But when you look at them, you know, I find it hard to believe when they'll get their paycheck, and we won't.

NAYLOR: Or at least the members of Congress will get to decide whether they get their paychecks or not.

Teddy Watson, a contractor for the department of Housing and Urban Development, says a lot of federal workers do live paycheck to paycheck.

TEDDY WATSON: I just feel for those who are barely making it, so to speak. And that's the hardest part, you know, because some people are just barely getting by when they are getting a paycheck. So one week, two weeks, that's how I look at it. It's tough.

NAYLOR: Those workers who do work in a shutdown will be paid, although their checks will be delayed. Whether their furloughed colleagues get paid is entirely up to Congress to decide.

Some long-term federal employees, who lived through the last big federal shutdown in 1995, are steeling themselves. Harold Dorwin is a photographer with the Smithsonian Institution. He says he's set some money aside.

HAROLD DORWIN: There's no point to this. Of course, you've got some people who are elected to Congress who don't know how the government works. They really don't understand how much money is going to be lost by this.

NAYLOR: Of course not every government employee will mourn a shutdown. Springtime is one of Washington's most beautiful seasons. One man who strangely didn't want to give me his name said he was looking forward to a few days off. But he said his wife has already drawn up a list of chores around the house.

Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington.

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