Shut down and nowhere to go: Federal employees frustrated with furlough ‘limbo’

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With a partial government shutdown now entering its third week nearly 400,000 furloughed federal employees remain unsure how to fill their vacant days, but are finding ways to stay busy.

American University’s School of Public Affairs on Tuesday opened its doors to furloughed government employees, offering workshops on everything from podcasting and giving effective presentations, as well as a group yoga class and a course on managing across generations.

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Vicky Wilkins, the dean of AU’s School of Public Affairs, said the university had “a skeleton plan” to provide course offerings to furloughed federal employees for a couple years, but previous shutdowns had ended before the plan could take effect.

“In this case, it’s kind of lingered, and we wanted to dust off that plan and bring it to fruition,” Wilkins said, adding that about 550 federal employees had registered for the event.

Kristin Duquette, a program analyst for FEMA’s Transit Security Grant Program who’s held her job since April 2017, said Tuesday’s event gave her an opportunity to seek camaraderie from furloughed feds from other agencies.

“We’re all in a state of limbo, and it’s great to know you’re not alone in this kind of waiting period of what’s going to be next,” she said.

Duquette arrived back in Washington on Monday after staying with her parents in North Carolina, where they made a plan of what she would do for the next two weeks, if the shutdown continues to drag on.

“This is not an extended vacation at all,” she said. “If it’s going to go on a lot longer, I will be back home with my parents.”

‘Making the most of the days’

Camille Howes, an associate district manager for the Bureau of Land Management, heard about AU’s program after a friend has posted about it on LinkedIn.

“I’m a lifelong learner, and so I hope to squeeze every drop out of every class,” Howes said.

Since getting her furlough notice, Howes has spent a lot of her time reading, going on walks, and taking in some of the tourist sites.

“It’s been great. I’m not sitting around sulking,” she said. “I’m making the most of the days.”

To that point, Howes said she found it encouraging to see other federal employees taking advantage of the university’s free workshops.

“To any people that subscribe to the thought that public servants are a bunch of bums, lazy slobs, this is a beautiful picture of how, in a non-paid status, here we are to develop ourselves so that we can better serve the American people,” she said.

Having worked at BLM for about three years, Howes has gone through the shutdown routine before, but this one is the longest she’s experienced.

“There’s a lot of divisiveness and it doesn’t seem like they’re getting to a resolution very quickly,” Howes said.

From Army to DHS, a shift in shutdown perspectives

Paul Bamonte, a Customs and Border Protection enterprise services official, started working with CBP in April 2018 after spending more than 20 years as a commissioned Army officer.

This shutdown, he said, marks his first as a civilian.

“It’s a different paradigm for me,” Bamonte said. “It’s a different experience, and what I’m finding is, you can catch up on exercise and your own personal mindfulness — health and fitness, and spending time with family.”

Bamonte obtained his master’s degree from AU in 2017, and heard about Tuesday’s workshops through the university’s alumni network.

“A lot of the programs are similar to the classes I just completed a few years ago,” he said, including courses in change management and project management.

During the shutdown, Bamonte has found it helpful to keep in touch with co-workers, as well as to stay connected with other networks of contacts.

“Other colleagues that are in similar situations, I find that I’m communicating with [them] more through social media or text about [what their experiences] are, and how we can collectively find our way through this challenging time,” he said.

Despite this marking his first experience as a furloughed employee, Bamonte said DHS provided “robust communications” in the days leading up to the shutdown, and set firm expectations of who would be exempted.

“Eventually, the government will overcome this challenge and figure out a solution so we can all go back to work,” he said. “But in the meantime, it is so absolutely important for people in the federal sector to continue to just share ideas.”

Dealing with ‘stress and anxiety’

A NASA headquarters employee, who asked not to be named, said AU’s workshops offered a constructive way to spend his time.

“I’ve been trying to figure out ways to deal with the stress and anxiety of not being able to do the job that I want to do, and so this just seemed like a good way to at least find something else to do,” the NASA employee said.

The NASA employee worked at a different federal agency during the 2013 shutdown, which lasted for 16 days. But under the current partial shutdown, the NASA employee said his spouse, who’s also a federal employee, has not been affected by the shutdown.

“It puts me in a better position than maybe a lot of other folks who don’t have a second income coming in,” he said.

Having looked over the list of courses offered, the NASA employee said he wanted to take part in a course on workplace mindfulness.

“Maybe this can be a productive day personally, since I can’t go anywhere else until the government gets its funding again,” he said.

But unlike previous shutdowns, the NASA employee said it’s unclear where negotiations stand on resolving the lapse in appropriations.

“It’s a little disconcerting, because I feel like, in the past, maybe I had a better sense of this is how it would look, and now, I really don’t know,” he said.

Over the past few weeks, news reports have highlighted the ripple effect the shutdown has had on local businesses. Wilkins, the AU’s School of Public Affairs dean, said the shutdown threatens to diminish people’s desire to work in government.

“What we need right now, at all levels of government, are our best and brightest, to handle the problems of today,” she said. “I worry that people are going to look at this and see it as evidence that that type of work is not appreciated in our country anymore, and it might drive them away and make other school choices and other training choices. I think that’s really detrimental to the country.”

Where feds can find freebies

Aside from free coursework at American University, federal employees affected by the shutdown can take advantage of a few other giveaways in Washington.

Z-Burger’s Tenleytown location will give a free meal to federal employees impacted by the shutdown, if they show a valid government ID, this Thursday from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.

The restaurant gave out more than 15,000 burgers during the 2013 government shutdown.

“We gave out free burgers the past two weeks and now due to people missing their paychecks, I have decided to give the furloughed workers an entire meal to help them get through these tough times,” Z-Burger owner Peter Tabibian said in an email Tuesday.

The Newseum has also offered free admission to federal employees for the duration of the shutdown. 

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