Federal Workers Face Internal Struggle Between Optimism and Practical Anxieties

Written by Rachel Kohn and Anis Modi on . Posted in Community News

The heavy snowfall last weekend translated into snow days for both kids and adults on Monday. The children have since gone back to school, but many adults in the Greater Washington area — an estimated 360,700 federal employees and third-party contractors — are dealing with disrupted schedules and financial uncertainty as the partial shutdown of the federal government continues into its fourth week.

A partial shutdown happens when Congress fails to pass a yearly budget, which provides the funds required for some federal government programs to operate. While Congress and the president passed an appropriations bill funding mandatory government operations in September 2018, the yearly budget, which has yet to pass, funds discretionary spending. As a result, according to a U.S. Senate Committee on Appropriations report, more than 350,000 federal employees are currently working without pay; and nine out of 15 federal departments and dozens of other agencies are closed indefinitely.

Jewish-owned businesses and community institutions are among the many that have stepped up since Dec. 22 to support affected community members. Kosher restaurants Holy Chow and Ben Yehuda Pizza are offering discounts for furloughed workers. Day schools are giving parents more time to make their monthly tuition payments. With camp registration deadlines around the corner, some camps are letting families know they are willing to make accomodations so those affected can still make summer plans for their children.

For those in need of immediate financial assistance, emergency loans of up to $2,000 per household from the Hebrew Free Loan Association (HFLA) of Greater Washington are available to furloughed and unpaid but working federal employees in the local Jewish community. Unlike HFLA’s standard loans, which require a rigorous vetting process and three guarantors, these emergency loans do not require guarantors for federal employees who can provide documentation such as proof of their employment and current payment status. Repayment must be made within a week of receiving their paycheck.

Yad Yehuda of Greater Washington announced a similar program for federal employees who have missed a pay period, with funds available to recipients within 48 hours. Gmach Moshe Ben Yakov, a recently established free loan organization operating under the umbrella of Mesorah DC, is yet another avenue for those in need.

Looking on the Bright Side, But Feeling the Strain

Furloughed employees and federal contractors were willing to be interviewed for this article on the condition that their names not be used; most even asked that their agencies or where they live not be included. (Even workers who are not furloughed said they are being instructed by their agencies not to talk to the press.)

“Sima” (not her real name) has been a federal employee for 10 years and weathered furloughs before, but said this one feels different: “In the past, you never knew if tomorrow would be the day the government reopened. This time, you assume it won’t reopen tomorrow.”

Married with three kids, like many parents interviewed for this article Sima said she’s been making the most of her suddenly very free time. She is not allowed to work, even voluntarily, on the unfinished reports she hasn’t touched in weeks, though she knows there will be a scramble to finish them when the shutdown eventually ends.

“They’ve basically guaranteed backpay [for federal employees], so truly it’s just a free paid vacay at taxpayers’ expense,” she said. She is no longer planning activities on a day-by-day basis but is assuming she has the week ahead at her disposal.

“Josh,” a software engineer with the government for 13 years, lives down the street from Sima with his wife and four kids. Like Sima, his spouse works in the private sector, but only part time. His children’s school “has been great in terms of letting us wait to pay tuition payments until we are paid,” and the family hasn’t utilized any of the public or Jewish community relief services yet, but if the shutdown continues they will, he said.

He does not describe the shutdown as a negative experience for him. “I have enjoyed spending more time with the family and have been able to enjoy my hobbies,” he said. At the same time, however, “I am concerned about the financial impact to me and my family. While we have been promised back pay, until we receive it, we still have to pay our bills and that money has to come from somewhere … I have explored other employment simply because I now have more free time to do so.”

A couple of nights ago, Sima “had a panic attack at one in the morning” when she misread her online bank statement and thought that between tuition payments and credit card bills her family was already in trouble. “In the light of day, I calmed down, but it was really scary,” she recalled.

“Thank G-d we’re financially okay even if goes on for a while, but it’s hard to know many others are not and are suffering,” she went on. “My heart goes out to families that are paycheck to paycheck, both spouses are furloughed, contractors who won’t get backpay. Seeing the Yad Yehuda notice about the food bank brought tears to my eyes, but also made me realize how blessed we are as a community. My non-Jewish colleagues don’t have these same safety nets.”

Divided on the Wall

There have been 10 government shutdowns involving furloughs in U.S. history, including a 16-day shutdown in 2013 and one that went on for three days in January of last year. The current crisis already surpassed 21 days to become the longest on record.

A shutdown usually occurs due to strong disagreements between either house of Congress and the president as to how money should be allocated. The point of contention that prompted this shutdown was President Donald J. Trump’s demand for $5.7 billion to be earmarked for the construction of a physical barrier on the southern border. Thus far, negotiations both between the president and Congress and within the West Wing have not resolved the impasse.

“Sam” is a political conservative who voted for Trump. He has also been an employee of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for over 30 years. That may come as a surprise to some, but from Sam’s perspective it shouldn’t. “I believe that federal employees should be nominally neutral whenever possible,” he said.

Most of Sam’s coworkers at the EPA “are less positively disposed towards whatever this president believes, so they think he should give in quickly,” Sam said. “I feel that he needs to stand up for something that demonstrates why he deserved the support he received and that unlike many politicians, he will do what he promised and is what he strongly believes is best for the country.”

Sam is married and has three adult children. “I was taught to always be prepared for lean times and so I can wait [the shutdown] out finanically, but I know young, lower-paid workers are feeling it very much,” he said.

“Eileen,” a Democrat, is one such worker. She has worked as an intelligence analyst for over six years and is currently employed as a third-party contractor. The youngest worker interviewed and one of the few singles, she expressed the most concern about the shutdown’s impact on her ability to pay her bills and on her credit score. She was furloughed before, but never set aside money for the event of a prolonged government shutdown.

The feeling among her co-workers right now is one of unity, but “more likely than not, [my] next step will be to the private sector,” she said.

Almost everyone interviewed said that the difference between this shutdown and previous ones is that it is about more than a disagreement on a spending bill. “Sides are more dug in and the political theater is more heavily played out in the media,” said Sam.

There were differences of opinion, however, as to the purpose of the president’s proposed wall and whether Congress should or shouldn’t fund it to end the shutdown.

Eileen was against funding it. “POTUS wants a wall to prevent asylum seekers from entering the U.S., but it’s only a small fraction of the U.S. border,” she said. Plus, “asylum seekers are fleeing incredible, murderous situations, as the narcoterrorists are running Central and South America.”

“We need to keep MS-13, drug cartels, terrorists and human traffickers out of our country,” said Sam, who thinks Congress should fund the wall. “Some of the deserving immigrants are fleeing MS-13 and drug cartels!”

“I do think that we need to control our border. A country without a means to control its borders is not a nation,” he said.

Josh, who did not indicate his political affiliation for this article, called for a spirit of compromise to negotiate the price of the wall or the size of the wall. “A large population in this country voted for Donald Trump and his policy of building the wall. Not everyone agrees with that position, but it is a desired outcome [for some]. Dismissing it outright dismisses a large portion of the population,” he said.

“Joseph” has worked as a federal employee or third-party contractor for a total of 10 years. He said he does not affiliate with any political party and believes the shutdown happened because of hyper-partisanship. The crisis will be resolved when a large enough bipartisan majority passes a budget, he said.

“I try to not worry about [the shutdown], as there’s nothing I can do about it,” he said. “I’ve been more nervous in past shutdowns.” Single and in his 40s, he’s been spending his time catching up on projects and playing tourist.

Like Sam, the shutdown has not changed Joseph’s feelings about working in the federal government. “I chose my career path and job based on my personal interests. I’d continue this path regardless of threats of shutdown,” he said.

“Frustrating as it is, public service is still rewarding,” said Sam.

By Rachel Kohn and Anis Modi


 Rachel Kohn is editor in chief of Kol HaBirah.

Anis Modi is a staff writer for Moment Magazine in DC and a regular contributor to Kol HaBirah.