Federal Worker: "Just Don't Know If It's Worth It Anymore"

Government workers across the country are still shut out of their jobs - and they're telling their stories. For the latest on the budget stalemate and how people are affected by the shutdown, host Michel Martin is joined by Federal Diaries columnist Joe Davidson of The Washington Post.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Later in the program, we'll talk about the new fall television season, and we're always interested in whether the casts are diverse, but what about behind-the-scenes? One of Hollywood's most accomplished writers tells us about how he's tried to get more Latino voices into the mix and why that matters. That's all coming up.

But first, day three of the partial government shutdown. We've been hearing from you. We've been hearing from all kinds of people who've been affected - tourists, people who work in the tourism industry, Americans living abroad, grad students doing federally funded research. Hundreds of people have told us their stories on Facebook and Twitter at #2013ShutDown. We wanted to share some of those stories along with the latest news, and today, we're placing a particular focus on federal workers who've been shut out of their jobs. So we've called Joe Davidson once again. He writes The Federal Diary column for The Washington Post which looks at all things involving the federal workplace. Welcome back, Joe. Thanks so much for joining us.

JOE DAVIDSON: Thank you.

MARTIN: Now we're seeing a big impact in the Washington, D.C. area, even traffic because some roadways are even shut down for some reason. I don't know. Maybe the park police monitor them or open them up or something, but - so they're even shut down. But what about other parts of the country? Are there other parts of the country where the shutdown is particularly noticeable?

DAVIDSON: Well, I think it's worth knowing that about 85 percent of the federal workforce is actually outside of the D.C. area. So there are certainly areas around the country that are probably experiencing this. There are certainly federal employees around the country. But you can probably find areas where - Chicago, for example. There was a demonstration by members of the - by employees of the Environmental Protection Agency, the union out there - a local of the American Federation of Government Employees - staged a demonstration at Federal Plaza in Chicago a few days ago. And so this indicates that this is not just a Washington, D.C. area in terms of its impact on federal employees or its impact on services throughout the country.

MARTIN: Now congressional leaders met with President Obama at the White House yesterday, just the top leaders from both houses. They say that there was no progress at all. The speaker of the House, John Boehner, Republican, said it was, quote, a nice, polite conversation, unquote, but no progress was made. Apart from what they're saying publicly, is there any sign that privately any progress has been made?

DAVIDSON: Well, I think one thing that - one way in which this shut down, or certainly this crisis more generally, differs from others is that you don't hear about any back channel or backroom negotiations, any kind of secret or off-the-record negotiations - or not even necessarily secret or off-the-record. But before you had negotiations, say, between the vice president and Mitch McConnell and the Senate, you had different folks on both sides of the aisle and both chambers trying to come together - and not even necessarily the official negotiation - but trying to come together to see if they could generate some sort of accommodation between the two parties. That's not happening this time. And so, I think that what you see is what we get, and basically that's nothing.

MARTIN: Well, we've been hearing from some of the 800,000 federal workers and their families who have been affected by this. I just want to play a clip from Stephanie (ph). She and her husband are federal workers in Denver, and they're both on furlough now.

STEPHANIE: I've always considered federal service a calling. My parents were federal employees. My grandparents were federal employees. The environment is worse than it's ever been. It's very frustrating. I tried very long and hard to get into the federal government, and it's just been an uphill battle the entire time. And at this point, I just don't know if it's worth it anymore.

MARTIN: You know, you can hear the emotion in Stephanie's voice.

DAVIDSON: Right.

MARTIN: I mean, she wanted to work in the federal government.

DAVIDSON: Right.

MARTIN: She feels a sense of pride and that she's doing something important.

DAVIDSON: Yeah.

MARTIN: Are you hearing that, as well?

DAVIDSON: You know...

MARTIN: Is this a real blow to morale?

DAVIDSON: Definitely, and I'm hearing it more now than ever before. I've been covering federal employees for a while now. And there certainly have been issues that have affected them, such as a three-year freeze on their basic pay rates - which is still going on - the sequester, the budget cuts, which forced many of them to be furloughed just this year. But talking with people in the last week, since this shutdown began, I think I'm hearing basically a new low when it comes to morale.

Just the kind of thing that we heard on that clip, I heard just the other day. One woman told me, for example, that for the first time, she advised a young woman not to go into the federal service, and she's a lifelong federal employee. And she said, it made me sad. You know, it made her sad that she could not recommend the federal service. Another woman told me that she was ashamed, basically, of the way - ashamed of America because of the way it is treating its federal employees and the people in general.

MARTIN: Another listener in Baltimore wrote to us to say, quote, we were barely making it paycheck to paycheck before this happened. Now we'll have to decide which bill goes unpaid. If we can afford groceries, they will be very basic. Already, we go without new clothes, eye and dental care, home repairs, etc. You know, I'm wondering, though, I think many people have an impression that the salaries...

DAVIDSON: That's right.

MARTIN: ...While not lavish, are not kind of poverty level, you know, wages. Do you want to clarify this for us?

DAVIDSON: Well, there are a lot of low-income - relatively, at least - low-income people in the federal workforce. Let me give you an example. There's something called the Federal Employee and Educational Assistance Fund which provides loans and low-level loans, like about $600, to help people make ends meet. Because of the budget cuts and the furloughs that resulted from the budget cuts - now this is before the shutdown - they ran out of money for these low-level loans because the people who were on furlough - the previous furlough - you know, so many of them asked for loans that they no longer had any money to loan out. And so, now this situation just exacerbates that.

And so we're talking about a lot of people who make, you know, maybe $40,000 a year. You hear a lot of complaints, for example, by the transportation security officers. You know, their entry-level wages are only around $40,000, so they're not making a lot of money. And some of them live in high rent districts like the Washington, D.C., New York, and all of these other places. So I think there is a misconception out there that a lot of these federal employees are making $150 and more, and some of them are. But that is a minority, and you have a lot of people barely getting by.

MARTIN: Will they get back pay if this situation is resolved? Will employees receive pay...

DAVIDSON: Well...

MARTIN: ...For the days that they were locked out?

DAVIDSON: That's an uncertainty. It's up to Congress. Congress will have to approve that. And, as you well know, given the attitude of the Republicans in Congress now, you certainly can't count on that. They certainly can't count on back pay.

MARTIN: You know, we got a note from one listener who said that it's against the law for employees to donate their time.

DAVIDSON: It is.

MARTIN: So if that's the case, if it's against the law for employees to donate their time, but some employees are required to work, what happens?

DAVIDSON: Well, they can't volunteer their services. So that's why they are essentially shut out. In fact, I was talking to a - I was talking to a couple of federal employees yesterday, and they said there are some people in the office, but they are restricted only to what they consider to be accepted activities. And so, if I go talk to them, they aren't allowed to talk with me because even though they are in the office, talking with a reporter is something that is not allowed during the shutdown. So they have all of these kind of crazy rules that even if you can work on one thing, you can't do anything out of a narrowly defined mission. But, for many people, if they wanted to work, they really are prohibited from working.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're talking about the ongoing government shutdown. My guest is Joe Davidson of The Washington Post. He writes something called The Federal Diary column where he covers all things connected to the federal workforce. I want to play another clip from a listener named Jared (ph). He lives in Silver Spring, Maryland. He worked for the federal government for 10 years. And we asked him what he thought was missing from the conversation on Capitol Hill.

JARED: Honestly, the constitutional duty. Congress has an obligation to pass a budget every year, and I know that we haven't done that in quite some time. We've been passing CRs for years. They're there to do a job, and they're not doing it.

MARTIN: By CR, he means continuing resolution. We've heard a lot about this, about how Congress is not passing budgets. I was wondering, Joe, if you have a sense of who the federal workers blame for this situation. You know, 'cause clearly both parties, the president, the Congress, you know, the Senate Democrats, House Republicans, their supporters on both sides have been very aggressively trying to get their message out. I don't know about you, my inbox is stuffed with press releases every single day from people blaming, you know, the other side for this. The president speaking today, basically saying don't be confused about whose fault this is. Do you have any sense of who the federal workforce believes is responsible?

DAVIDSON: Well, I've talked with a number of federal employees, and they tend to blame the Republicans because the Republicans are attaching or trying to undermine, if not totally defund, the Affordable Care Act, which is, you know - it shouldn't be attached to a basic funding bill. That's what many of them believe inside and outside of the federal workforce, I think. Interestingly enough, though, I talked with one federal employee. He worked for FEMA. This was on his - he was on his way home on Monday, leaving because of the shutdown. He said, I'm a Republican, but I'm with the Democrats on this. You know, he said that he thinks that going after the Affordable Care Act in this way is really irresponsible on the part of the Republicans. So, by and large, the people I talked to definitely blame the Republicans for this situation.

MARTIN: Finally, the Republicans had advanced the idea that they had advanced certain bills that would fund only portions of the government. One doesn't want to be cynical, but suggest that these are things that they think are particularly impactful or particularly impactful of their political supporters. Is there any movement around that idea...

DAVIDSON: Well...

MARTIN: ...Of passing bills that would affect certain highly visible things?

DAVIDSON: Yeah, like the national parks, for example.

MARTIN: Like the national parks, for example. And there was a very interesting situation where a number of elderly veterans were shut out of a commemoration they were expected to have at one of the memorials in Washington, D.C. They just busted through the gates and said we're going. We're just going.

DAVIDSON: Well, the Republicans - I mean, the Democrats and the Republicans have basically - the Democrats and the president - excuse me - have basically rejected that idea. However, they did agree to vote for funding for military pay. So soldiers and a certain number of civilians who work in the defense department will get paid. But other than that, it doesn't appear like there's going to be any exceptions to this overall shutdown.

MARTIN: What about veterans? What about veterans who are waiting for programs like - there are aid to veterans' programs for elderly veterans like the ones who attended this event on the mall.

DAVIDSON: Veterans' hospitals remain open but the processing of new claims are not being done.

MARTIN: Joe Davidson writes The Federal Diary column for The Washington Post. He was kind enough to join us in our Washington, D.C. studios. Joe, thanks so much for joining us.

DAVIDSON: Thank you.

MARTIN: Remember, you can tell us how the shutdown is affecting you on Facebook and Twitter. And you can read other listeners' stories. Just use #2013shutdown.

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