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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Federal workers found themselves divided into two groups this week - the essential and the nonessential. The essentials went to work; the nonessentials did not. But is it hard to enjoy any time off if you're not only not getting paid, but you have been labeled nonessential? NPR's Alan Greenblatt has been speaking with government workers. He joins us now from St. Louis Public Radio. Alan, thanks so much for being with us.

ALAN GREENBLATT, BYLINE: Hi, Scott.

SIMON: You went to a protest in St. Louis, by federal workers. How were they feeling?

GREENBLATT: Well, of course they're not very happy. For them this is the latest insult. They look at it as part of a string of having been used as bargaining chips or as an ATM during other budget fights. They've had furlough days through this year due to spending cuts known as sequestration. Civil servants haven't gotten a raise for three years. And now of course they don't know how long they're going to be out of work with the current shutdown.

SIMON: And they may have mortgages, they may have car payments, right?

GREENBLATT: Well, of course they have all those things. I talked to one woman who's already told her kids if this goes on much longer she's canceling Christmas. It seems like everyone I talk to either has a kid for whom they have to pay tuition or they have student loans themselves if they're young enough.

SIMON: What kind of jobs do nonessential, and I'll put that in quotes, "nonessential" federal workers have, the ones you met?

GREENBLATT: It's a wide range of activities. There are people who are helping people with rural bankruptcy issues or with writing contracts for insurance so that multi-family units can be built for public housing. I talked to somebody with NASA who is working on a project to send satellites that will convert data transmissions from radio frequencies to lasers. That satellite's not going up until 2017, so right now he's not essential. At NASA, if you don't have something in the air, you're not working right now.

SIMON: Did anybody talk about what it's like to be labeled nonessential?

GREENBLATT: Well, I think people have an understanding that it's a technical term. It's actually been changed since the '95-'96 shutdowns to exempt and non-exempt. Those haven't really caught on. Of course they feel very insulted when some conservatives use this as a talking point in the current debate, that if we have 800,000 nonessential workers, it proves that the government is bloated.

But I think there's a difference between urgent and important.

SIMON: I wonder, Alan, did you run into any workers who have been maybe putting money aside for just this kind of eventuality?

GREENBLATT: I did actually find one woman who has the six months of savings that financial planners would tell you you need to have. But she's pretty rare. Most people don't have that much saved away, but some people have heard the rhetoric over the last couple years, they saw it coming. This fellow who I talked to with Social Security, they have a certain quota of disability claims that they have to check by the end of the fiscal year, so he made sure to get as much overtime as he could working through that backlog so that he could have a little bit saved away for just such a circumstance.

SIMON: NPR's Alan Greenblatt, speaking with us from St. Louis. Thank you for this essential conversation, Alan.

GREENBLATT: Well, thank you, Scott.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: And you're listening to NPR News.

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