With the debt ceiling deadline only one day away and financial peril looming for the U.S. and the world economy, all eyes are on Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and their negotiations. Now in its sixteenth day, the shutdown began on October first when Tea Party activists drove conservative House members to change or defund the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare as part of any budget deal. Due to the shutdown, federal workers deemed nonessential have been furloughed. We interviewed a federal employee who spoke out about his frustration, how it affects him and his department and the impact the shutdown would have on local economies and the environment.
Robert, not his real name, is unhappy with what he calls being held hostage.
“I am not very pleased with being a pawn used by the political parties,” said the central Virginia resident, who has worked for the United States Department of the Interior for 13 years. “This entire situation is disgraceful, embarrassing…”
For the last two weeks, Robert has been furloughed from his job as a supervisor. He did not want to disclose which agency within the Interior Department he works for, but did say that his duties involved monitoring environmental resources, including water.
“If we went back to work tomorrow, things financially wouldn’t be so bad,” Rob stated. “But if this goes on into November, we could be looking at problems.”
While Robert’s wife has a good job with an export firm in Richmond, her salary is only a fraction of their pre-shutdown income. “We still have bills coming, including car payments, a mortgage and the credit cards.” In addition, Robert’s seven year old son is attending parochial school near the family’s home.
Before he was furloughed as a nonessential employee, Rob acted in anticipation of the shutdown lasting longer than this month.
“I have called the credit card people and the people who have our loans and explained the situation.”
According to Robert, the companies understood matters and worked out an adjusted payment schedule.
“Apparently a lot of their clients are government employees,” he added.
“None of this came as a surprise to me or anyone I work with,” commented Robert on his unemployment. “We got an e-mail on September 30, informing us to report to work the next day for only fours hours.”
In that time, his staff was instructed to tie up any loose ends, including removing personal items and leaving messages on their office phones, informing all callers that they are closed until further notice.
“Now, my boss is working,” he added. “And he can decide who is essential and therefore can work.”
One of the ironies of the government shutdown is that Rob’s job survived the imposition of sequestration on the federal budget at the start of 2013. “We were able to absorb the five percent cuts that took place,” said Robert. “If we could work then, we can still work now. Our agency still has the funding.”
The branch of the Interior Department that employs him receives only partial funding from tax payer dollars, according to Robert. “We collect environmental data and market the information to states and municipalities. That is where most of our budget comes from.”
Robert added that a continued shutdown could be detrimental to data gathering efforts. “The local and state governments look at what we do in real time,” Rob explained, adding the longer his agency is inactive, the greater chance the information could be out of date.
“I’d say there would be nearly zero impact on local economies,” Robert said, regarding the effects of his office’s inability to function.
He did, however, state that local governments take into account information gathered by his agency when making long term plans for water treatment facilities.
He added such a facility would have to monitor flows of local lake and rivers when discharging water. This is mandated by law,” Robert added. “So they need to have real time information in these matters.”
Concerns about local ecology are a more pressing concern. “Operators of water treatment facilities and nuclear power plants need to know what water flow levels in their area are like in order to make safe discharges of water,” Bob explained. If this is done with inaccurate information, he added, the results could be harmful to the environment.
“Fortunately, there is no danger, we could go for another two to three weeks,” said Bob. However, monitoring equipment requires periodical maintenance. “If that’s not done, there is a risk of inaccurate information.”
“In a way I’m upset about this,” added Robert. “If I were paying for this service, I would be pretty upset.”
The government shutdown has taken its toll on all federal employees but some more than others. What became evident during this interview was that even in the same department there are remarkable differences. When he was working, Robert supervised a staff of six people and they still meet for lunch every week to keep morale up.
“Some of us are doing okay financially and some of us are not,” he said. “We talk about the situation and how we are doing. The main thing I want to do is maintain team unity.”
Robert has also been in communication with his bosses, but stated no one has any idea when he and his people will return to work.
“You can guess as well as I can,” he remarked.
Robert also voiced suspicion that the current shutdown will not be the last. “The limit on the federal debt ceiling is coming,” he noted. “If that isn’t settled, we may find ourselves doing this again.”
At the close of the interview this federal employee added, “I know that when this is all over, we will get our back pay. That will be good in the future, but it would be better to be working right now.” The government shutdown hasn’t been good for anyone. And if our lawmakers don’t cut a deal soon, things will get a lot worse for everyone, the world over.
By: Philip Perry and Donald M. Kelly