Cynics see a federal government shutdown as a paid vacation for federal employees, at least those forced into furlough. For the most part, you can actually take paid, approved leave during a shutdown. But it still uses up your bank of vacation time for a given year. Otherwise, in some sense, yes, unexcepted employees are paid to do nothing. But shutdowns are not of the federal workforce’s choosing. Few feds I’ve ever talked to have ever expressed any desire for the sort of interruption a shutdown causes.
I observed my first federal government shutdowns during the Clinton administration, during which two occurred. They seemed surreal. More federal employees were deemed non-essential in those days, which meant more of the government closed. Today more employees than in the past are designated as exempted — exempted from furlough that is. So more of the government functions.
Shutdowns sprang up relatively recently, much later than lapses in appropriations. The first shutdown occurred during the Reagan administration, following a Justice Department interpretation of the 19th-century Anti-Deficiency Act. I wonder why no subsequent AG hasn’t said, “Nah, we can operate on credit.” Like an old fashioned store where the keepers would maintain scribbled chits for customers short on cash. The government borrows as much as it raises anyhow, so the shutdowns have always seemed like a mannerism of political drama, more than a legal necessity. But that’s just me.
No one receives pay, whether a TSA Officer who must report for a shift, or whether a financial analyst forced to stay home. That stinks, but there’s no way around it. The very earliest shutdowns lasted less than a day. Now we’ve had them lasting weeks, the last one more than a month.
So let’s say you will end up on furlough. What can you do? You can’t work in secret, or from your home cloud account, or anything like that. Furlough means furlough, and there’s no sense in trying to be a martyr. Agency network access will probably stop for the duration anyhow. Feds also have restrictions on the types of paid work they can do while on furlough, and for many professionals, alternative paid work that avoids conflict with their furloughed job feels undignified.
Maybe you could look at a furlough period as an opportunity to do things for yourself that are neither work nor vacation. Lord knows you deserve it. How about:
Volunteer in the community. The food banks, the senior centers, the libraries — so many organizations need the kind of self-starting, mature volunteering you can provide. If you’ve never read a book to a roomful of small children, let me tell you, it’s both a blast and fulfilling.
Write letters to 10 people you’ve told yourself you should write to. I don’t mean email, but rather pull out that box of stationery and strip of 1st class U.S. Postal Service stamps. Buy a Pilot Varsity disposable fountain pen and do it right. They come in a bunch of colors.
Write a personal blog or diary. Give yourself time to think about it, draft it, and then do the work of rewriting and polishing
Help someone nearby. Got an elderly or infirm neighbor? The old folks always have something that needs done that they can’t quite do for themselves.
Pick a project or two around the house that’s been nagging. Sweep the garage. Trim up that garden patch. Clear the clutter out of the car once and for all. Get after that paper stack, read those mounting magazines and get them to the recycle bin (in my house we call those The Pile).
Pick an online project. That Facebook or LinkedIn or whatever account is sorely in need of some updating and cleaning up. For busy people, maintaining these things is a pain in the neck. Why not get after it now?
Be a tourist in your own town for a few hours. Every city and town has an exhibit or performance you never have the time to check out. Walk the streets. Try the bus. Check out that park. Yes, such an activity is vacation-like, but it’s not as if you’re booking a cruise to Norway, until the agency calls you to return.
Oil a rusty skill. Get that guitar re-strung and see what you can do, really concentrate on it for a few hours. Get back to the range and see if you can still shoot straight. Set up the easel, and if your paint tubes haven’t congealed … you get the idea.
Read the book you’ve been meaning to. That’s something I’m doing myself. I have an overnight trip to Boston planned, and I booked it on Amtrak. I splurged on business class because the seats have footrests. About 7 hours each way from D.C. What a golden chance to catch up on some reading.
Reconnect with an old friend, lost-lost relative, work associate, whatever. Most of us do this only at weddings and funerals. Why not do it now? Not online in non-social media, but in person.
There’s little good in a federal shutdown. It’s unworthy of Congress, of the executive branch, and of the country’s standing. Certainly it’s the antithesis of serving the public. So maybe you can make the proverbial lemonade.